It was revealed this week that the Bush Administration:

has secretly been tapping into a vast global database of confidential financial transactions for nearly five years, according to U.S. government and industry officials.
Initiated shortly after Sept. 11, 2001, the surveillance program has used a broad new interpretation of the Treasury Department’s administrative powers to bypass traditional banking privacy protections. It has swept in large volumes of international money transfers, including many made by U.S. citizens and residents, in an effort to track the locations, identities and activities of suspected terrorists.

This secret snooping on global wire-transfers, working in conjunction with the NSA wiretap program, was (is) part of the Administration’s strategy for finding and disrupting global terrorist networks.

Aside from the obvious civil liberties concerns of gathering data on AmCits without a proper warrant, there is a key conceptual issue at stake that is likely to cloud the debate and mislead those trying to make a judgment on the use of this tactic. Specifically:

The White House vigorously defended today a secret program of combing through a vast international data base containing banking transactions involving thousands of Americans. Vice President Dick Cheney and other officials said the program, whose existence was revealed on Thursday night by The New York Times, was both legal and necessary to deter terrorism.

Emphasis added, on Deter Terrorism.

Simply put, a secret program like this can’t deter terrorism.

It can identify and monitor terrorist networks. It can signal terrorist activities. It can generate intelligence vital to interdicting terrorist activity. But, it cannot deter terrorism and terrorist attacks.

Deterrence, as studied in great depth by a number of IR scholars, is a relatively simple game. Party A threatens Party B with some sort of punitive action if Party B takes a particular action. Party A must clearly and credibly communicate the threat, and Party B must feel threatened enough to be dissuaded from undertaking the action in question. It revolves around a clear shared understanding of threat, credibility, and consequences. Deterrence failures result when either a) the threat is not severe enough to change Party B’s actions or b) the threat is not communicated in a clear, credible manner to create a shared understanding of consequences between the two parties.

So, to deter terrorists, there would have to be a standing, credible threat for the US to respond with significant force on a target the terrorists hold in high value. If the terrorists strike the US, the US strikes the high-value terrorist target. The threat of this unfavorable retaliation keeps the terrorists from attacking the US.

How does secret monitoring of international financial transactions fit into this equation? For the monitoring program to work, it must be secret. If terrorists knew they were being tracked, they would find another way to move money about the globe. Such secret monitoring does nothing to dissuade terrorist activity– in fact, just the opposite occurs. The more terrorists activity using this international financial system, the more valuable intelligence is gathered.

What it does not do is deter. Deterrence requires a public game, and really only works when totally and completely transparent. The transparency increases the credibility of the threat by leaving no room for doubt. The Bush Administration has disavowed highly public anti-terrorist measures and shown a lackluster commitment to public diplomacy while showing a penchant for secret monitoring programs, secret prisons, and secret wars. You can interrupt a particular chain of events in secret, but you can’t deter in secret.

So, if we want to talk about deterring terrorists, lets publicly talk about what we’re doing to raise the cost of terrorist action. That’s how you play the deterrence game.

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