Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The World's Turned Upside Down and Why the Patriot Act Doesn't Make Us Safe

Today was a strange day to be a progressive.

As I read the news, I surprisingly found myself rooting for Rand Paul and the Tea Party to be victorious over Harry Reid and the Democratic leadership in the Senate. What cause could unite the libertarians and the liberals? Well, the Patriot Act is up for renewal, and I agree with Rand Paul that this exchange for security in the name of freedom is wrong.

My primary objection is stated beautifully in the Fourth Amendment:
"The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized."

The Patriot Act has clearly breached this freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures and eliminated the requirement for probable cause. This act was originally passed in the wake of 9/11, without proper consideration of what it truly meant. There is no question that acting in such moments we often make mistakes and fall victim to our emotions. But we have defeated Osama Bin Laden, and we need to decide that fear no longer rules our lives.

I could continue on this track, but the questionable morality of this act is an argument about ends and means which is both obvious and endless by its nature. Instead, I suggest that we think about whether this act actually makes us more safe.

One of the important findings of the 9/11 Commission, was the same exact findings that we had seen after Pearl Harbor, so many years ago, namely that all the intelligence was there, it just wasn't noticed. The blame in both situations was placed upon the competing intelligence agencies within the government and a lack of centralization. But this doesn't explain the whole picture. In the weeks before before December 7, 1941, there were seven reports of Japanese submarines in the Pearl Harbor area, and all of these reports were false. In the modern era, there are easily a hundred false leads for every good one. Would a centralized agency have definitely known which information was worth following up?

Consider an interesting and important parallel. In the 1970's, a psychology professor named David Rosenhan conducted an experiment. He sent a random group of people to a mental hospital where they were to report that they had been hearing voices. They were to tell the staff that the voices were now gone and other than this simple fact, they were to answer every other question truthfully. These eight subjects were hospitalized for an average of 19 days and were given a total of 2100 pills. This is a disturbing problem, but it doesn't end there.

Next, Rosenhan told a hospital staff that over the next three months he would be sending pseudo patients. Of the 193 patients seen during that time, 41% were diagnosed by a least one staff member as certifiably sane. But once again they screwed up, because Rosenhan hadn't sent anyone. When we try to treat one intelligence problem, such as over diagnosis, we often end up with an opposite problem, in this case, under diagnosis.

Now let's take this back to the Patriot Act. We have increased the amount of intelligence available from a ridiculous amount to a practically unmanageable amount. And yet it remains true that fruitless information and important information are hard to separate. Inevitably, we either end up over diagnosing, or under diagnosing the situation. And when we try to fix it we will swing the pendulum the other way and call it progress. Adding more information does NOTHING to solve this clear problem with our intelligence system. We need better analysis of the evidence we have if we really want to improve our counter terrorism.

So once again I ask, does the Patriot Act make us any safer, or does it just add more false leads and more confusion into a system that's already difficult enough. If we had enough intelligence to prevent 9/11, why didn't we stop it? Why were obvious clues ignored? If they were buried under the avalanche of useless clues, is it really a good idea to expand the scope of intelligence?

These are questions that need answering and unlike most Democrats, Rand Paul has shown the courage to propose amendments and seek out debate. And yet Harry Reid, insists that this four year extension needs to be be passed without consideration of amendment or even debate. So today, the world had turned upside down, because I'm standing firmly with those crazy libertarian Tea Partiers to ask, "Why are we giving up freedom for the promise of security, without even a debate or evaluation of whether its making us more secure?"

***I would like to note that much of the evidence supporting my argument was drawn from an essay entitled, Connecting the Dots: The Paradoxes of Intelligence Reform by Malcolm Gladwell, a brilliant writer for the New Yorker, whose work I highly recommend.