It was not long ago — in 2013 to be precise — that Edward Snowden’s revelations had created hysteria about NSA surveillance in both the US and Europe. European states rushed to strengthen data privacy and to limit cooperation with Washington. Meanwhile, President Obama instituted steps to limit NSA authorities and Congress passed the 2015 USA Freedom Act which watered down the 2001 Patriot Act and made it harder to keep track of terrorists — most notably by ending the NSA’s authority to maintain a database of “metadata” on phone calls.
The Brussels attacks revealed the price of this ACLU approach to fighting terrorists. It is now obvious that this tragedy, in which at least 30 innocent people were killed and hundreds injured, could have been avoided if only the European Union in general, and Belgium in particular, had systems in place for intelligence-sharing of the kind that the Patriot Act created by tearing down the artificial wall between intelligence and law-enforcement agencies.
The Turkish government has come forward to announce that it had detained Ibrahim el-Bakraouni, one of the suicide bombers, and had deported him to the Netherlands but he was released after Belgium said it had no evidence that he was involved in terrorism. His brother, Khalid, another of the suicide bombers, had been wanted since the Paris attacks in November, which were carried out by the same network. We don’t know why he wasn’t apprehended, but Belgium’s overly-restrictive rules on police activity, which, inter alia, make it illegal stage raids from 9 p.m. to 5 a.m., probably contributed to his ability to roam free.
More broadly, the attacks reveal the cracks in European security, which allow terrorists to move freely from the EU into Syria and back again. As EU official Dimitris Avramopoulos admitted, “The perpetrators of the recent terrorist acts, they were all somehow known to the local intelligence authorities, but they didn’t do anything because they were not sharing information.”
Indeed, the EU still has not instituted a comprehensive terrorist database known as the Passenger Name Record that can be searched at all ports of entry. Part of the problem is parochialism: The EU’s member states remain suspicious of one another and reluctant to share intelligence information. That’s an issue in individual states as well, where intelligence and police agencies often remain suspicious of another and reluctant to share information between themselves.
But part of the issue is also a concern with civil liberties run amok. In countries such as Germany there is an especially strong culture of protecting individual privacy. That’s understandable and commendable in light of German history, but, as German Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere said after the Brussels attack, “In times of crisis — and we are in times of crisis — security has priority.”
The U.S. should count itself lucky that, unlike in Europe, we have a federal government that is capable of sharing information gathered in any of the fifty states or abroad. We are doubly fortunate that the Patriot Act made the federal government more effective in sharing information among its various agencies. But we should not be complacent. Congress should rescind the Freedom Act and restore to the NSA the more robust authorities it gained after 9/11. Electronic surveillance is our first and most important line of defense against terrorism. In the wake of attacks not only in Paris and Brussels, but also in San Bernardino, we would be foolish in the extreme if we were to unilaterally disarm in the face of the growing terrorist threat.