What lessons have we learned and what future do we expect by reason of the World Trade Center attacks? Subjects touching on this were the focus of the Computers and Law course I directed at the University at Buffalo Law School for five years. This was of interest to law students because there is a constant legal "frisson" between the "privacy" advocates concerned about the interception of electronic messages, surveillance of citizens and such on one side, and the law enforcement community, which wanted to use devices such as Carnivore (FBI) and Trailblazer (NSA) to decode e-messages.
The law in this area is extremely unsettled. We watched the debate go back and forth as the law enforcers would announce a triumph and the privacy advocates an outrage. On the one side, the discovery of a serial rapist through his DNA -- on the other, a surveillance camera found in a ladies' room. The most recent strophe was the outraged cry of the federal judges when they found that their own personal e-mail messages were being read as part of the government's general computer surveillance program.
Back then, I predicted the debate would be finalized in favor of surveillance when a crisis terrorist attack in the United States would sweep away all dissent in favor of law enforcement. This has now occurred. The American people, when confronting a truly threatening attack, do two things -- they embrace a dramatic solution, and they spend enormous amounts of money and effort on it.
The main questions Americans will ask are: Why didn't our intelligence services (CIA, FBI, NSA, Secret Service) have any inkling of this attack? What happened to the painfully administered airport security program?
We can look to President Bush to create a new agency to deal with the terrorist menace -- lavishly funded, enormously powerful, secret in operation and without regard to anyone's privacy rights. This will, in turn, result in a vast expansion of all branches of technology and the training and education of people to support it. It may be that we will copy the Israeli practice of assassinating known terrorist leaders where we can find them. America has always shrunk from this, but I think this development may force it.
A moment here for a bit of history. About 1,000 years ago, a murder religion cult arose in the Middle East. "The Assassins" had a mountain stronghold and would murder any leader, sultan or emir who opposed them. They drugged their converts with hashish and when they recovered from their glorious dreams, they were told that if they died doing the master's bidding, they would spend eternity in the happy dream they had just left. The hashish they took make them "hashishin" or "assassins" -- the derivation of the modern word.
Unfortunately for them, they tried their trick on one of Genghis Khan's grandsons, Askosa. He stormed their redoubt and made a pile of 10,000 of their heads. The lesson we learn is that assassination has always been an acceptable political act in the Middle East, but has been shunned in our culture.
On the transportation front, it seems there is little more that can be done in investigating passengers (outside of requiring colonoscopies), but I suppose there could be further checks and armed guards on airplanes. All of this will put us at further odds with the rest of the world and even our European partners, who have a much different and stronger view of the rights of privacy than we do. It will be "1984," "Brave New World" and "Star Wars" all rolled into one.
HOWARD MEYER is an attorney who holds degrees from the UB, Harvard and Cambridge Law Schools. For five years, he taught the Computers and Law course at UB Law School.
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