The new red menace?

If openness is sacrificed in the battle against terrorism, have the terrorists won?

At an auditorium in Sierra Pacific’s headquarters, advocates argued the pros and cons of openness in government.

At an auditorium in Sierra Pacific’s headquarters, advocates argued the pros and cons of openness in government.

Photo By Dennis Myers

Advocates for and against openness in society and government debated last week before a lunchtime panel sponsored by an FBI adjunct. The topic was cyber-security in an age of terrorism, but the discussion ranged beyond cyber issues.

The discussion attracted about 50 people and was sponsored by the local InfraGard, a group formed in communities around the nation by the FBI.

“InfraGard is a national information sharing program,” according to its brochure, “between the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the private sector.” A national non-profit organization in existence for six years, the Reno chapter holds public meetings once a quarter to share information about protection of the country’s infrastructure in such areas as computer security, transportation and energy.

Former Nevada Press Association director Ande Engleman, who has also worked as a government staffer and legislative reporter, moderated Thursday’s discussion. She began with a brief history of the notion of privacy. She showed that in earlier periods, to make information available regarding government spending of citizens’ money, information was published that today would probably be considered unacceptable. For example, in the 1893 Nevada Appendix to Journals of the Senate and Assembly, all state mental hospital patients were listed by name and treatment.

Since that time, public interest in privacy has grown, at times being treated as a civil liberty guaranteed by the Constitution. Some government officials say that such privacy considerations don’t work in a new age of fighting terrorism.

“We need to keep in mind that our security is also very important,” one of the panel members, Washoe County Assistant Sheriff James Lopey said. “You can’t take that right to privacy too far.” He believes the PATRIOT Act gives law enforcement officials appropriate power to protect citizens’ safety.

But panelist Frank Mullen, a longtime investigative reporter for the Reno Gazette-Journal, called that kind of power a “slippery slope.” He said there is danger in allowing the government to hide behind an idea like homeland security, which he said often acts as a shield for incompetent or illegal activity by officials. “Sunlight,” Mullen said, “is the best disinfectant.”

But does sunlight, in the form of open access to information, work in a post-9-11 world? Audience members joined in the discussion.

“Whether we want to think about our personal freedoms,” one man said of the terrorists, “if they’re successful, we have no personal freedoms. All human life will be gone.”

Lopey agreed with this assessment, saying Americans need to be vigilant against terrorism. An FBI brochure available at InfraGard’s Thursday meeting defines terrorism as “the unlawful use of force or violence … to intimidate or coerce a government or its citizens to further certain political or social objectives.” The brochure encourages people to report suspicious activities such as surveillance or supplies being acquired by suspicious persons. Suspicious persons are depicted as “anyone who does not appear to belong.”

And while another panel member, Glade Miller of the state attorney general’s office and council for Nevada’s commission on homeland security, agreed with the need for vigilance, he sided with those who began to discuss the nature of runaway fear in an age of worldwide terrorism. And he emphasized that terrorists are not just foreigners. He said terrorists can include some animal-rights activists, the Environmental Liberation Front and the Oklahoma City bombers.

Several audience members stressed that if Americans restrict their freedoms in response to fear, the terrorists have won their goal of changing the United States into a closed society.

Engleman pointed to the McCarthy era in American history, when fear of communism ran rampant. “We had secret lists—if your name appeared on one, you couldn’t get a job. That’s what fear can do to a country. It really was a sad time in America’s history. I would hate to see us head in that direction again.”

Mullen said the United States is already there. “The more I see of this homeland security/PATRIOT Act/anti-terrorism movement, the more I see it as creeping fascism. That doesn’t work, either. Hitler couldn’t stop the resistance in France, and he had total, absolute control of those people. … If we change the way we live and become more fearful and become less free, they’ve won already—and they’re already winning because we’re defeating ourselves.”

“I would argue that America needs to be fearful,” Lopey said, “because we’re at war.”

He described exactly what he believes Americans would have to change to appease the current crop of terrorists, despite the anger with which some Americans react to the suggestion that United States’ foreign policy may have fueled terrorists’ hatred against this country, leading to the Sept. 11 attacks.

“Unless we do several things, we’re going to continue to deal with terrorism. We either convert to Islam, we get out of the Middle East, or we withdraw support for Israel. Unless we do those three things, they’re not going to leave us alone.”

But is terrorism a force against which a nation sanely can wage war? Mullen thinks not.

“It’s a war against a technique. You can’t go into the capital of a technique and take it over. … Treat it as it should be treated: [Terrorists are] criminals. They’re murderers. Track them down with law enforcement and get rid of them. But by elevating this thing to the status of war, that’s where you run into problems because it’s a war you’ll never win.”

Terrorism was discussed not only in terms of violence, but in terms of Internet security and protection against identity theft, the original topic of the program. Audience and panel members agreed that this crime should be curtailed and punished, but disagreed again on the balance between security and protection.

“I don’t think we’re ever going to put the genie back in the bottle,” said Jack Homeyer, president of Reno’s chapter of InfraGard. “We need to do a better job of catching the bad guys and making sure they know they’re going to get caught.”

One member of the audience said the problem is more basic than that. “We [should] teach our children that theft on a computer is no different than walking into someone’s house,” Tara Shepperson said. Shepperson, the director of Nevada’s Cyber Crime Task Force, continued, “Just because you know how to unlock the door, doesn’t mean you should walk in. … Often I think, culturally, because it’s new, there’s a disconnect between technology and basic rules. … It’s up to law-abiding, decent people to spread decency in a simple, non-political, personal way.”

The next lunch meeting of InfraGard is scheduled for Oct. 21 and is open to the public. To go one step further and become a member of InfraGard, membership applicants must allow the FBI to investigate their backgrounds. InfraGard members are granted access to information “that enables you,” according to the brochure, “to protect your family, your company, and our nation.”

Homeyer encourages people to consider membership. “If you decide that you want to get deeper into it and get the information that’s restricted … become a member.”