June 28, 2006

Revealing of Secret Government Actions by New York Times is Good.

The recent publication of secret monitoring by the US of international money transfers has been discussed in depth. There is one thing that escapes my, quite possibly limited, comprehension.

The papers, particularly the New York Times, have been accused of compromising on the national security. This was no flippant charge made over coffee. The president himself suggested that the publication was disgraceful.

The idea is that now the "terrorists" know that their misdemeanors are being monitored by the US, and they will hence be little more careful next time. This line of argument is ridiculous for more reasons than one.

For one thing, as a Times editorial pointed out it is, at best, wishful thinking to suppose that terrorists did not know this already.

Moreover, this argument suggests that the government is competent to disrupt nefarious activities only when they are indulged in via anticipated routes. It is the duty of the government to deny them however they try to do it. It has no business complaining that it's job is made harder.

Most importantly, the "war on terrorism', or indeed any war against criminals, is at the most fundamental level, an attempt to prevent the crimes. Only then the question of catching the criminal arises. (There is a deeper philosophical issue here: one is not a criminal till the crime is committed.) Of course, these two objectives are tied to each other. But I think it is important to grasp the distinction.

I used to wonder why police cars when they arrive at the crime scene make their approach known to everybody (most crucially to the prospective criminal) by their loud sirens. I never found out the official reason, but I convinced myself as follows: the objective of catching the criminal is inferior to the objective of preventing the crime. So if a guy is about to shoot somebody the police sirens might dissuade him. So while he might escape, a life could have been saved.

In the same way, even if it comes as news to the terrorists that their wire transfers are being watched, it's good that they will now not use these known methods. So one route for criminality is eliminated. And the infrastructure and devotion needed to find out new routes may filter out numerous potential terrorists.

So I think the over all goals of the so-called war on terrorism are served well by this report.


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