Have you ever seen the trailer for “the horribly slow murderer with the extremely inefficient weapon”? If not, check it out on Youtube because it contains a brilliant catch phrase which sums up press coverage on the NSA scandal today. Several newspapers, among them der Spiegel, der Standard and FAZ wrote, that the alleged “No-spy”-agreement between the US and Germany is not making any progress (not that I was suspecting any). One diplomat is quoted in these articles saying “they have lied to us”, thereby making headlines in the press. Ironically, it is not the only news today that was debunked as a lie.
Apparently, the massive NSA phone surveillance is not helping in the war on terror, a study by the New America Foundation shows, which analyzed 225 terrorism incidents since 9/11 in the US. The study concludes that traditional law enforcement measures were sufficient in almost every case to solve the case. This means that law enforcement measures that existed before 9/11 and before the Patriot Act were sufficient in solving the cases. Similarly, the EU data retention directive that collects metadata from EU-citizens never caught a terrorist, but is rather used for petty theft and narcotics abuse. Critics repeatedly reported that data retention does not prevent terrorism. The arguments put forward to establish these extraordinary measures, namely to prevent terrorism, were simply not true or at least often exaggerated. It should come as no surprise then that secret services are lying. Ever seen James Bond? He lies all the time. General Keith Alexander, head of NSA, lied to congress during a hearing. There are many myths surrounding the NSA scandal which are simply lies. Lying is part of politics, I get that, but in politics you have to take your hat if you lie and get caught. Nixon did after Watergate, Germany’s minister of defense took his hat after getting caught cheating in his Ph.D. thesis. Since summer, the NSA has been caught several times. You do the math.
On a more philosophical level this is especially problematic because laws like the Patriot Act restrict several civil liberties. Anti-terror laws were established in the light of 9/11, thus measures were taken under shock and panic (which is always a bad mental state to be in when having to make balanced decisions). Aware of the surveillance potential and the threat for civil liberties, many legislators tied the passing of this legislation to a deal. The original deal was to balance security and liberty: we strip down civil liberties in favor of security, but it must be in balance and it must be justified. If there is an existential threat and data retention can protect against it, then it might be logical to allow those measures, even though they might be unconstitutional. That is why in many Western democracies, anti-terror legislation is limited and under scrutiny after a few years. This deal was the reason why so many Western democracies, with the rule of law still intact, allowed similar measures in spite of the pressure of civil liberty advocacy groups. This deal, however, was based on trust and reliable information. Unfortunately, the secret services have broken the deal by lying to the general public and exaggerating the threat of terrorism. Sure, the victims of 9/11 should not be forgotten, but if the extraordinary measures taken are not any better than old school law enforcement and are based on exaggerations in the first place, why still keep them? The money wasted for surveillance could be used more efficiently, for example for hiring additional cops or paying the long hours they collected over the years.