Obama’s “Emergency” Control Over Private Telcommunications: The Terrorists Win

In the days following 9/11, we heard many poignant recordings of phone messages between victims caught up in the terrorist attacks and their families. Perhaps the most stirring was that from the mother of Mark Bingham, informing her son aboard United Flight 93 that planes were being used as weapons and urging him to do everything he could to “overpower these guys.” Armed with such information, rather than following Standard Operating Procedure of cooperating with the hijackers as did the other doomed flights that day, passengers aboard Flight 93 led a successful assault on the cockpit that resulted in the plane’s crashing in a field in Pennsylvania, rather than into its likely intended target, the White House or Capitol building.

Now, President Obama has signed an executive order providing the government control of all telecommunications, including private telephone, cellular, and wireless networks, in an “emergency.” Under the terms of this, Flight 93’s passengers would be unlikely to be privy to the knowledge that their hijacking was part of a coordinated attack on the U.S., and Flight 93 would today thus likely hit its intended target.

A year ago, the acting director of the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) system was able, under his own authority, to preemptively block all access to private cell phone communication by anyone in a public BART station because of the rumor of an intended protest, defending his actions as justified under a 1969 ruling under which “you can put public safety above free speech.” In a Freedom Watch segment in which I appeared, “BART Borrows from Mubarak,” Judge Andrew Napolitano expressed dismay that this could have occurred in a city “known for its open attitudes and for its political protests.” Having learned well from Robert Higgs’s Crisis and Leviathan, I rightly warned that as night follows day, this “extraordinary” precedent would be followed by additional, extended governmental exercise of “emergency” control of communications.

And so it has come.

This next nail in the coffin of our former liberties could only make sense to those who—believing, as George W. Bush, that “they hate us for our freedoms”—seek to secure safety at the expense of those freedoms. We instead now have neither liberty nor safety, and with the stroke of his pen in signing this executive order, President Obama has now improved the odds for the terrorists should they attack again.

As we saw during 9/11 and through the Arab Spring, in this Information Age communication is one of the most powerful weapons we possess. Now communications-disarmed, our citizenry is thus that much easier to conquer. The question is: Is our conqueror foreign, or domestic?

Mary L. G. Theroux is Senior Vice President of the Independent Institute. Having received her A.B. in economics from Stanford University, she is Managing Director of Lightning Ventures, L.P., a San Francisco Bay Area investment firm, former Chairman of the Board of Advisors for the Salvation Army of both San Francisco and Alameda County, and Vice President of the C.S. Lewis Society of California.
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