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Security versus Liberty: The Other War

The tensions and tradeoffs

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Protester at the trial of Hossein in Albany, NY.

Protester at the federal courthouse in Albany, NY.

Following 9/11, the U.S. government adopted some controversial new tactics intended to prevent future terrorist attacks, including warrantless eavesdropping on Americans' phone calls, secret demands for records under the Patriot Act, and FBI sting operations against people thought to be potential terrorists.  

The Bush Administration contends these tactics have helped to save American lives, but critics say they have severely damaged our individual liberties.

Three stories illustrate the issues of security and liberty:

In a Public Library

At the National Security Agency

An FBI sting operation

SECURITY VERSUS LIBERTY explores this urgent national debate by talking with leading critics and advocates of the new policies, and telling the stories of people whose lives have been directly affected.

If the war against terror is truly the long struggle our leaders say it will be, then so too will be the struggle to set the right balance between security and liberty. This program provides valuable information that will help Americans come to grips with the difficult choices we face.



The Library Story

How much independent power should we give the FBI?  Was 9/11 a wake-up call that the agency responsible for protecting us from terrorism had been hamstrung with too many regulations?  Or does the long history of FBI abuses of Americans’ rights during the Cold War prove that the Bureau’s power must always be carefully counterbalanced by the courts? 

In 2005, a battle broke out in Connecticut between a non-profit group called Library Connection that provides computer services to libraries, and the Justice Department and FBI.  At issue: a little-known FBI investigative tool called a National Security Letter (NSL) that empowers the FBI to demand certain kinds of records, in secret, without a court order. 

We meet four ordinary Americans who decided to challenge the constitutionality of National Security Letters.  Barbara Bailey, Peter Chase, George Christian and Janet Nocek, who are all board members of Library Connection, sued the Attorney General of the United States to stop the FBI from using an NSL to find out who had used a particular library computer. 

Were they taking a principled stand for privacy – or obstructing the work of FBI agents who are under enormous pressure not to miss a single clue?  We hear from the four plaintiffs; from Ann Beeson, the ACLU attorney who represented them; from the U.S. Attorney for Connecticut, Kevin O’Connor; and from FBI General Counsel Valerie Caproni.

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The NSA Story

In December, 2005, The New York Times revealed that since shortly after 9/11, the National Security Agency had been authorized by President Bush to listen in on certain phone calls between the U.S. and foreign countries without the court orders required by a 1978 act of Congress known as the FISA law.  The President insisted that what he had done was both necessary and lawful, stemming from his Constitutional power as Commander-in-Chief. 

The President’s critics protested that the NSA’s so-called “warrantless wiretapping” was a dangerous expansion of Executive Branch power that threatened our Constitutional system of checks and balances.  In January, 2007, the Administration announced it had worked out a new arrangement with the FISA Court, and that the warrantless program would cease.  But the details of the arrangement are secret, and the debate over what the NSA is and should be doing is far from over. 

News reports and dozens of consumer lawsuits have alleged that some of America’s biggest telecommunications companies have been helping the NSA, by providing it with customers’ calling records.  And in San Francisco, a retired AT&T technician named Mark Klein has alleged that his former company has been electronically diverting huge streams of Internet traffic and turning it over to the NSA.  None of the companies has confirmed these allegations.

We hear from Mark Klein; from former Deputy Assistant Attorney General John Yoo, who helped develop the Administration’s legal justification for warrantless wiretapping; from author James Bamford, an expert on NSA history; from the ACLU’s Ann Beeson, who argued the lawsuit in federal court that led a U.S. District Judge to rule that the NSA program was illegal and unconstitutional.

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The Albany Story

Just how far should the government go in its effort to prevent future terrorist attacks?  In March, 2007, a U.S. District Court Judge in Albany, New York sentenced two men to 15 year prison terms on multiple counts of money laundering and material support to foreign terrorists.  One was a 51 year-old naturalized U.S. citizen from Bangladesh named Mohammed Hossain, a father of six who owned a local pizzeria.  The other was a 36 year-old Kurdish refugee from Iraq named Yassin Aref, a father of three who was the imam of an Albany mosque. 

But the terrorist plot that lies at the center of the case was entirely fictitious. The charges against the two men stemmed from their dealings with an FBI informant who pretended to be selling shoulder-fired missiles to a Pakistani terrorist group. The men’s supporters say that Hossain and Aref were hardworking, peaceful men who believed they were taking part in nothing more than a simple business loan, and were victimized by an unscrupulous sting operation.  But the FBI says the men were potential future terrorists, and that in the wake of September 11th, the Albany case is a good example of the strong preventive effort the government needs to be making. 

We hear sharply differing perspectives on the case from the men’s lawyers; from the president of their mosque, physicist Shamshad Ahmad; from William Chase, who headed the FBI's Albany office; and from a member of the jury that brought the convictions.

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