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Leaders balance civil liberties versus national security

Officials discuss the government’s challenges to fend off cyberattacks and terrorism

Key leaders discuss balancing civil liberties versus national security
Patrick Fitzgerald, Jim McDonnell and Joseph Levin Jr., from left (Photo/Tom Queally)

Prominent leaders in law enforcement and civil rights discussed the challenge the government faces, federally and locally, in fighting cyberattacks and terrorism while protecting the liberties of citizens during a recent Dean’s Speaker Series event hosted by the Athenian Society, the USC Price School of Public Policy’s premier philanthropic group.

Jim McDonnell MPA ’89, sheriff of Los Angeles County, Patrick Fitzgerald, first assistant U.S. attorney and Joseph Levin Jr., co-founder of the Southern Poverty Law Center, touched on topics such as the Patriot Act, cybersecurity, surveillance cameras and phone monitoring at the panel, which was moderated by Professor Raphael Bostic, director of the Bedrosian Center on Governance and the Public Enterprise at USC Price.

“Tonight’s conversation is incredibly timely, and it’s a very complicated issue,” USC Price Dean Jack H. Knott said in his introduction. “It affects cities and citizens everywhere, not only in the United States but around the world. And it’s a delicate balance between securing our safety along with our privacy and civil liberties.”

Co-sponsored by the USC Price Safe Communities Institute, the talk continued the Dean’s Speakers Series theme of addressing important issues in building “The Great American City.” It was held at the Millenium Biltmore Hotel in downtown Los Angeles on Nov. 18.

Evolving public opinion

The public’s sharp divide on civil liberties versus national security was brought to the forefront once again by the terrorist attacks in Paris the week before the event.

“As sheriff of Los Angeles County, we have people here from everywhere in the world,” said McDonnell, who received a Master of Public Administration degree from USC Price. “So whenever there’s an incident anywhere else, there’s a direct nexus right back here to Los Angeles.”

Such tragic incidents often swing public opinion on this issue. And although public opinion changes constantly, McDonnell indicated that it needs to be the guiding factor for government agencies to determine how far is too far in pushing for security at the expense of liberties.

“I think the public tells us, and there’s a pushback,” McDonnell said. “You saw after 9/11, we were all willing to wait in line to be searched and be secure. And then as time went on and we didn’t have additional incidents like that, we became much more impatient and you saw that kind of wane.”

Protection versus privacy

Fitzgerald — who has prosecuted a wide range of cases related to terrorism and other national-security matters, including the shooting of a TSA official at LAX in 2013 and the cyberattack on Sony Pictures last year — argued that order and protection are a big part of civil liberties that need to be included in any realistic assessment.

“Certainly to be able to walk down the street without worrying about being murdered is itself a core part of civil liberty,” Fitzgerald said.

Levin, who has worked on more than 50 major civil rights cases, was in favor of expanding, as much as constitutionally possible, the government’s ability to detect terrorist activity.

I’m concerned about the Fourth Amendment and privacy issues.

Joseph Levin Jr.

“We may not like it; I’m concerned about the Fourth Amendment and privacy issues,” Levin said. “But in this era of the Web and cellphones, you’ve got to have the ability to track this down because we know the risk exists.”

Fitzgerald conveyed that the use of communication devices and the Internet in general allow for transcontinental conspiracies to exist and operate in a much easier way than they would have previously. Extremist literature and ideas are readily available on the Internet.

“That does create more opportunity for impressionable young people looking for meaning in their lives to be drawn down a dark path,” Fitzgerald said.

Curbing cyberthreats

McDonnell called cyberattacks the nation’s greatest vulnerability because the scale of the problem is unknown. Fitzgerald noted that the U.S. attorney created a new national security division in the Central District of California that has terrorism and cyber sections.

“I think, and I’d say this is true for the department in general, that cyber issues are going to be at the core of national security going forward,” Fitzgerald said. “One can imagine what sort of effect an attack on Los Angeles could have, shutting down ports, shutting down the airport, shutting down the electrical grid. There are massive consequences.”

Levin expressed his concern that a cyberattack could take trillions of dollars out of the American economy and cause a great depression.

“We need to deal with it now, and in my opinion that’s not going to happen because it’s not in our face and it takes too much thought to grapple with it,” Levin said. “Here in America, we tend not to do anything that requires that kind of thinking outside the box until there’s something immediate and big that forces us to address it.”

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