But the type of intense ground-level sleuthing practiced by the NYPD can carry a steep cost. The AP’s revelations, which won it a Pulitzer Prize, drew furious protests over privacy and profiling and may have cost the NYPD trust among local Muslims. An NYPD official “testified that the information collected through the NYPD’s program did not produce any leads for terrorism investigations,” says Anthony Romero, executive director of the ACLU. “Instead, predictably, the NYPD’s actions wrongly stigmatized law-abiding Muslims.” For its part, the Boston Police Department says it does not surveil Muslim worship. “We don’t do racial profiling, or any kind of profiling that would target mosques,” a Boston police spokesperson tells Time.
The Obama White House continues to believe that cooperating with Muslim communities is crucial to detecting radicals. “You are actually better able to protect our security if you can enlist mosques and Muslim communities as our partners,” says Ben Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser to Obama. “There is no substitute for having people in these communities who will come forward.” That’s what happened in November 2010, when a bomb plot in Portland, Ore., was foiled after a local teenager’s father tipped off authorities to his son’s growing fixation with jihad. In an April 30 press conference, Obama said he had urged his aides to continue “engaging with communities where there’s a potential for self-radicalization of this sort,” adding, “But all of this has to be done in the context of our laws, due process.”
As Washington debates what lessons to draw from Boston, Americans say they’re more concerned about protecting liberty than attaining perfect security. Support for public surveillance cameras may be up substantially over the past decade, but Americans are warier than ever about government monitoring of their private cell-phone and e-mail communications, with 59% opposed to such actions.
Can we ever achieve perfect security? “Even if we wanted to, we could not investigate every radical in this country,” says Philip Mudd, former top CIA and FBI terrorist hunter. But we don’t want to: “The Founding Fathers were radical,” Mudd says, and therefore, “We’ve got a Constitution that says you can be a radical here. Speak however you want to speak.”
One thing we would certainly get for trying to exchange liberty for security is more lawsuits. But we may assume we have more protected rights than we do. The Bill of Rights is explicit about a lot of things, but it is silent on the subject of privacy (though the Supreme Court has found a privacy right implicit in the Constitution). And while the Fourth Amendment prevents unreasonable searches, it seems fair to ask what’s a reasonable search in a world where a lone actor can create a bomb from a pressure cooker. Perhaps the greatest Constitutional concern should be equal protection under the law: do we unfairly target Muslims if we look for those who break with an imam but not those who disagree with their pastor?
Many intelligence professionals are resigned to the idea that just as we’ll never stop every deranged school shooter, we simply won’t catch everyone with a violent ideology and some explosives. Not while we refuse to make it easy for the government to snoop through our e-mails and phone records. And not if we agree that it’s wrong to spy on places of worship that on exceedingly rare occasions attract people who can do tremendous harm. “We may find this was preventable,” says former CIA chief Michael Hayden. “But let me also tell you, this was inevitable.” The same could be said for our struggle to find the right balance between liberty and security.
—With reporting by Alex Altman, Zeke Miller, Alex Rogers and Michael Scherer/Washington and Simon Shuster/Dagestan