In a little-noticed appearance before the Los Angeles World Affairs Council in late June, Secretary of Defense William Cohen did some thinking out loud about trading off civil liberties in the fight against terrorists armed with biological weapons. His thoughts are unsettling, to say the least. He suggested that the American public would be inclined to accept more intrusive domestic spying and diminished civil liberties in order to allow government to gain more intelligence on potential terrorist activities. If this is a prelude to a policy shift by the administration, it’s crucial that everyone understand how seriously it would undermine the American way of life in the name of providing dubious protection from external threats.

Increased domestic snooping would be both misguided and harmful. Increased domestic spying is unlikely to afford much added protection against terrorists armed with weapons of mass destruction, or WMD (nuclear, biological and chemical weapons). The Defense Science Board admitted that preventing biological attacks is more challenging (because of the difficulty of gaining intelligence about the production, transportation and delivery of such agents) than is mitigating the effects after the attack has occurred (which is also difficult). Terrorist groups are hard to penetrate--even by the best intelligence agents and undercover law enforcement officials--because they are small and often comprised of committed zealots. At the same time, law enforcement agencies and other organizations have the tendency to stretch and abuse any increased powers of investigation. For example, the FBI spied on and harassed Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement. The Army conducted surveillance on Americans at home during the Vietnam War. The law enforcement community might use the threat of terrorist attacks with WMD as an excuse to expand its power of investigation far beyond appropriate levels.

In his remarks, Secretary Cohen implied that civil liberties should be undermined sooner rather than later. He suggested that waiting to curtail civil liberties until after experiencing the emotional effects of a catastrophic terrorist attack might be unwise. He seemed to assume that reducing liberties now will preclude a greater constriction of them after an attack. Although the threat of an attack is real, it may or may not occur. A preemptive surrender of civil liberties is, therefore, most ill-advised. Undermining civil liberties through increased surveillance is not the best way to deal with an attack and would not preclude a draconian suppression of liberty in the wake of a calamitous attack. In fact, an earlier constriction might set a precedent for even harsher measures later.

Furthermore, focusing on relatively ineffective surveillance measures and marginally effective efforts to mitigate the effects of an attack (stockpiling antidotes and vaccines and training emergency personnel) diverts attention from measures that really could be effective in reducing the chances of a WMD attack on U.S. soil.

The best way to lessen the chances of an attack that could cause hundreds of thousands or even millions of casualties is to eliminate the motive for such an attack. Terrorists attack U.S. targets because they perceive that the United States is a hegemonic superpower that often intervenes in the affairs of other nations and groups. Both President Clinton and the Defense Science Board admit that there is a correlation between U.S. involvement in international situations and acts of terrorism directed against the United States. The board also noted that the spread of technology for weapons of mass destruction and the increased willingness of terrorists to inflict mass casualties have made such an attack more likely.

Yet even with the demise of its major worldwide adversary--the Soviet Union--the United States has continued to intervene anywhere and everywhere around the world. Getting involved in ethnic conflicts--such as those in Bosnia and Somalia--in perpetually volatile regions of the world that have no strategic value actually undermines U.S. security. After the Cold War, extending the American defense perimeter far forward is no longer necessary and may be counterproductive in a changed strategic environment where the weakest actors in the international system--terrorists--can effectively attack the homeland of a superpower. To paraphrase Fredrick the Great, defending everything is defending nothing.

Most of the ethnic instability creating turmoil in certain regions has nothing to do with vital American security interests. Instability has always existed in the world and will continue to do so. The United States should intervene decisively, but only in rare instances when a narrowly defined set of vital interests is at stake. As Gen. Anthony Zinni, commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East, stated, “Don’t make enemies [but] if you do, don‘t treat them gently.”

Such a policy would avoid unnecessarily inflaming ethnic groups and nations that could spawn terrorist attacks. It would also enable the U.S. government to avoid imposing restrictions on American liberties that damage the American way of life. A policy of military restraint overseas would obviate the need to destroy the key tenets of American society in an attempt to save it. Flailing about by curtailing civil liberties in an attempt to prevent a catastrophic terrorist attack of uncertain probability is like removing a lung to reduce the chances that the patient may someday develop lung cancer. In contrast, adopting a policy of military restraint is like getting the patient to stop smoking. It may not be easy to accomplish (especially for a superpower with a large ego), but it is the most intelligent course.