The recent outcry over collection of phone record data by the National Security Agency is only the latest instance in which the war on terrorism has raised concerns over civil liberties. Earlier examples include warrantless wiretaps, expanded airport security measures, special detention procedures for "enemy combatants," aggressive questioniong techniques of these detainees, and provisions of the Patriot Act like government access to library borrowing data.
In each instance, critics of the government's tactics contend they constitute unacceptable infringements of civil liberties. The government claims these infringements do not harm innocent people and are acceptable costs of fighting terrorism.
The government's position--that the benefits of civil liberties infringements are worth the costs--is reasonable in principle: almost everyone would accept a reduction in civil liberties that substantially reduces the likelihood of future terrorist attacks.
But how do we know whether anti-terrorism measures in fact prevent terrorism?
The answer is, we do not know. Perhaps this is because, despite having compelling evidence its efforts have thwarted attacks, the government cannot reveal this information without compromising its ability to deter future attacks. Perhaps this is because governments anti-terrorism efforts have not deterred attacks. Either way, we simply do not know.
In evaulating the tradeoff between civil liberties and reduced terrorism, therefore, the American public is being asked to take on faith that the goverment is balancing these concerns appropriately. That is, at a minimum, an awkward situation for a country that values freedom and democracy.
In some situations, government might have no choice but to keep its actions secret, even if this raises civil liberties issues. But these situations should be few and far between. Whether the Bush adminstration is choosing the right balance is impossible to tell.