I’ve just returned from a vacation in Paris, which I report partly to induce envy (I went), partly to seek sympathy (I returned) and primarily—having favorably compared our revolution to theirs in this space—to give credit where due: The French have managed to maintain security amid an environment of openness in a way that has eluded us. Part of the reason is that the French internal security services keep a close watch on radical Islamic activity. Another is that they have not had to confront a calamity on the scale of 9/11. But one wonders, as I have speculated here before, whether some of the difference has to do with attitudes toward risk. The French may have accepted 99 percent security. We demand the full 100. And that extra percentage point—which is, not incidentally, delusive—is a costly one indeed.
In the last several years, a U.S. citizen has had an infinitely higher chance of being killed by a Mexican drug cartel than by either a foreign- or domestic-bred terrorist. These cartels are sophisticated networks that depend on high-tech communications. Their roots run deep into American society. They are international in scope. They target civilians indiscriminately. Surely programs like PRISM could help to identify their communications, suppliers and customers and generally disrupt their operations. Why not—on the general theory that PRISM is justifiable because it saves American lives—turn the NSA loose on them?
What Burke said of the revolutionary French can be said of the National Security Agency’s sweeping collection of information on mobile telephone calls too: “They who destroy every thing certainly will remove some grievance. They who make every thing new, have a chance that they may establish something beneficial.” They who sweep every telephone call into a dragnet hardly worthy of the name—dragnets, after all, imply some discretion—certainly will catch some malfeasance. And here we arrive at the problem.