Amidst the klieg lights of the Republican National Convention and the tension of the post-coup crackdown in Turkey, it’s been easy to forget about last week’s appalling terrorist attack in Nice. Mohamed Bouhlel, a self-anointed “soldier of Islam,” mowed down a crowd of Bastille Day revelers in a tractor-trailer truck, killing 84 and injuring many more. This week, France mourns, as it has all too often over the past year.
Think too hard about the murders and they chill your bones. A lone wolf killed more people than the Orlando nightclub shooter and the San Bernardino jihadists combined, without the aid of a conventional weapon, using the kind of vehicle that’s passed by my window several times since I started writing this column. How exactly do you stop such an attack? Implement “truck control”? Disperse celebrations on the French Riviera? (Good luck with that.)
If you’re a foreign policy hawk, then your solution is the same as after every terrorist attack: more surveillance and more power to the national security bureaucracy. This isn’t just an affront to liberty; it’s guaranteed to be ineffective. The fact is that France already has a latitudinous surveillance law — call it the Patriot Act on steroids — and it not only failed to stop Bouhlel, it may have made his capture even less likely.
Four months after a terrorist attack that targeted the Charlie Hebdo satirical magazine, the French parliament passed an expansive surveillance package. The new powers were needed, said French Prime Minister Manuel Valls, because France hadn’t updated its surveillance provisions since 1991, long before the proliferation of cell phones and the Internet. Fair enough, but there was another likely reason Valls was pleased with the law: it grants him—him personally—massive new powers.
The law allows French security services to peep at phone calls and Internet communications without obtaining a warrant, as do current American statutes. But our NSA must at least present its case to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC). This is a glorified rubber stamp — the FISC has waved through more spooks than the parking-lot attendant at Langley — but at least in theory, it’s a layer of accountability. France’s power of oversight, on the other hand, is vested in a committee chaired by Valls, who can singlehandedly override the other members’ objections.
The equivalent here in America would be Paul Ryan gaining access to every one of our calls and emails. One imagines him in that red baseball cap at the gym, pumping iron in one hand and scrolling through metadata with the other. It’s the very definition of an autocratic system.
There’s plenty more. The French law also forces Internet Service Providers to install “black boxes” that vacuum up metadata and make it accessible to intelligence agencies. It contains a “sneak-and-peek” provision similar to the Patriot Act, which allows government operatives to break into suspects’ homes and monitor them. And it green-lights the use of ISMI catchers — essentially incognito cell towers, they sweep up all phone communications within a given area, including, if needed, people’s locations.
Even worse, while the Patriot Act is explicitly limited to terrorism, the French law applies to other cases, including those of “organized delinquency.” So at least all the disorganized delinquents in France can rest easy. It can also be activated to protect the country’s “economic, industrial and scientific interests,” which is so elastic as to include just about everything. Sen. Rand Paul was absolutely correct to call the French law “a thousandfold more invasive” than anything on the books in America.
All this surely means the French are suffering the same problem that’s confounded the NSA since it was expanded after 9/11: a glut of useless information that makes it tougher to track the actual evildoers. With endless data flowing in, preventing terrorism has gone from finding needles in haystacks to finding needles on hay farms. None of the provisions listed above would have stopped Bouhlel, who had no connections to ISIS and a record of only petty crime.
This is the great divergence of modern surveillance: as intelligence agencies modernize their craft, terrorists elude them by going back to basics. How do you stop a truck? How do you neutralize a non-threat? Certain reforms, like increased intelligence-sharing among European nations, might help. But more surveillance itself certainly isn’t going to do the trick.
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Matt Purple is the Deputy Editor for Rare Politics (Rare.us). Read more at http://rare.us/voices/matt-purple/