Civil Liberties: A Privilege, Not a Right? A look at the flexibility of human rights in security issues

flag securitySource: American Constitution Society for Law and Policy

Last week the U.S. Senate released a controversial report on the Central Intelligence Agency’s use of torture in the interrogation of terrorists and suspected terrorists. The report argues that torture is ineffective as an interrogation technique and is therefore unjustified. The CIA promptly countered the criticism with a media blitz. Former intelligence officers and officials launched the website maintaining that their actions prevented terrorist attacks, preserved U.S. national security, and protected the lives of Americans at home and abroad. Perhaps what is the least controversial about the report is what is being investigated. The Senate report questions the efficacy of the use of torture in interrogations; not the ethics. Though some argue that publishing the report is harmful to national security, the silver lining is that it sparked discussions on an important subject: the delicate balance of civil liberties in issues of national security.

In democracies, the protection of individual rights take priority over the protection of society as a whole—in the post-9/11 world, this tends to clash with national security policies. The government has an obligation is to keep its citizens safe, which is easier to accomplish by using tactics that violate constitutional rights. Furthermore, since intelligence operations and interrogations are classified, the public will never know if the ends truly justify the means. The U.S. frequently faces criticism from the international community for using interrogation tactics that blatantly violate principles of American democracy. These criticisms strike a chord with U.S. foreign policy makers because it contradicts the American principles which they preach to both our allies and our foes. However, this isn’t an issue that is unique to the U.S.—many other countries have also struggled to balance individual rights with the protection of society.


Although there aren’t many that expect Cuba to spearhead international civil rights initiatives, their response to the HIV/AIDS epidemic does little to respect patients’ rights. Under the current policy, testing for HIV/AIDS is mandatory and, if infected, patients are placed in a state-run sanitarium for a period no less than 6-8 weeks. In the sanitariums, patients receive education about the disease, transmission, prevention, and how to live a healthy live while infected. Patients still have the expectation of privacy and those that are employed are still entitled to receive their regular pay while being treated. After the mandatory term of six to eight weeks, patients can either stay in the sanitarium indefinitely or they can go back home and resume their lives as they were prior to their diagnoses. Notwithstanding the obvious ethical dilemmas this policy poses, it is extremely effective. Among sexually active adults in Cuba, the rate of HIV/AIDS transmission is 0.1%.


As the country hit the hardest by the Ebola virus, Liberia has struggled to balance public health with civil liberties in its efforts to stop the pandemic. This is especially challenging for Liberia because of its weak governance, poor infrastructure, and a virtually nonexistent healthcare system due to a series of prolonged and destructive civil wars that occurred from the late 1980s to about 2004. The United Nations maintains a force of approximately 15,000 peace keeping troops in Liberia constituting one of its largest peacekeeping operations.

Instability and conflict have been part of life for Liberia for nearly 3 decades, so when the new threat to security was biological, the leadership was unprepared to implement countermeasures. Once the pandemic advanced beyond management, Liberian leadership enacted strict quarantines for Ebola patients in an effort to get ahead of its advance. The quarantines were mismanaged, with patients not receiving the care they needed or being allowed to leave. There were even reports of people under quarantine that were not diagnosed with Ebola or even exhibiting symptoms.


As the next door neighbor to Syria, Turkey is on the front lines in the fight against the Islamic State (IS). The spillover from the Syrian conflict—the influx of several thousand Syrian refugees and preventing extremist violence from spreading to Turkey—has generated huge challenges for Turkish government and law enforcement. In response to the IS threat, the Turkish Parliament is facing criticism for its new legislation. Turkey’s new laws are similar to what the United States was trying to accomplish with the Patriot Act. While the United States relies upon military and intelligence responses to terrorism, many European and Asian countries emphasize policing and law enforcement to combatting predicate offenses to terrorism. As such, the legislation gives broader authority for Turkish law enforcement to:

  • Search people and vehicles
  • Detain people for up to 48 hours without prosecutorial authorization
  • Increased penalties for protesters disseminating propaganda or inciting terrorism
  • Use firearms in their efforts to prevent attacks or bombings of public buildings
  • Take instructions from governors to pursue particular crimes or individuals suspected of criminal behavior

Understandably, there are negative reactions to the new legislation mainly because of the potential for police to abuse their authority. Additionally, allowing police to take instruction from governors to pursue particular crimes or individuals is a breach of the system of checks and balances. However, IS presents a serious threat to the safety of Turkish citizens and to Turkish national security. The new legislation may be able to help law enforcement prevent attacks on Turkish citizens.

A Fine Line

A Pew Research Center poll attempted to take the temperature of the public’s reaction to the torture report. The poll found that 51% of Americans believe post-9/11 interrogation tactics are effective to prevent terrorist attacks. Of those remaining, 29% think it is unjustified and 20% don’t know. While a majority of Republicans think the interrogation methods are justified, Democrats are split on the issue.

PEW study graphic

Source: PEW National Survey on CIA Interrogation Methods

Based on the majority of public opinion on these issues and a multitude of similarly controversial policies across the globe, it would appear that this imbalance will be an enduring issue. Taking the CIA interrogation issue as an example, we can conclude that if there is no decisive opinion, public sentiment can sway in either direction. If government gives more priority to national security than to civil liberties, the public may grow weary of the pattern of intrusion. Since younger demographics are the group which take the most issue with government privacy intrusions and rights violations, this may be the more likely scenario. If opinion sways in the other direction, it is possible that we can see an alarmingly disproportionate relationship between the protection of individual rights and invasive national security policies. We would see a decline in the protection of civil liberties and an increasingly broad definition of what constitutes a national security threat. The questions remain:

How have we drawn the line between civil liberties and national security?

How will these decisions evolve over time?

What can we do to keep our rights and remain vigilant against security threats at the same time?

PEw study graphic 2

Source: PEW National Survey on CIA Interrogation Methods

The most pertinent question we can ask however, is: why aren’t more people paying attention to this? The Washington Post’s reaction to the Pew study questions what effect pubic disinterest had on the results. The survey showed that only 23% of Americans followed the story closely. Interest in CIA interrogation methods lagged behind domestic issues like police brutality, the state of the U.S. economy, and sexual assault on college campuses. In order to solve the problem, the American public first needs to decide if one exists. International comparisons, like the ones outlined in this post, can help to put the issue in context to decide where the line should be between upholding civil liberties and national security.