09/03/2013 12:46 pm ET Updated Nov 03, 2013

Our Counterintelligence Philosophy and Why It Deserves a Second Look

"We are dancing on the edge of tyranny," said Brian Michael Jenkins at a recent Commonwealth Club program. We have in place the institutions and the machinery that can move us in a more controlled direction, if a less benign government were to take advantage of the current systems in place, he added. Jenkins is the director of the Mineta Transportation Institute's Transportation Safety and Security Center and author of When Armies Divide: The Security of Nuclear Arsenals During Revolts, Coups, and Civil Wars. An expert on terrorism, Jenkins is referring to the current surveillance landscape.

Jenkins spoke at the Commonwealth Club shortly after Edward Snowden leaked information about the NSA's surveillance program, and though he does not condone Snowden's actions or condemn any specific program, he says that the mindset with which our policies are being created is troubling. "The real thing that is a cause of concern is the accumulation of secret programs, the accumulation of extraordinary measures, the assertions validated by Congress of extraordinary executive authority," he said. "It is the cumulative effect of those that causes the greatest concern."

He also said that 9/11 shifted how the United States responds to threats:

"We're not driven by what terrorists have done. We are driven by our apprehension of what they might do. And that's a difference. And that's an effect of 9/11. ... It fundamentally altered our perceptions of plausibility. That is, far-fetched scenarios that were dismissed as the stuff of Hollywood scripts the day before 9/11, the day after became operative assumptions."

It is important to understand the thinking behind our response to terrorism. With an organization that is fluid, functions across states and borders, and one that utilizes any means at its disposal, the United States faced a nontraditional threat. As such, the government and its associated agencies took action that they felt was necessary for our nation's safety. However, Jenkins reminds us that our nation was founded on the principle of checks and balances, and the three branches of government -- executive, judicial and legislative -- work with and against one another to ensure a balance of power. In the aftermath of 9/11, that balance shifted to the executive branch, with sweeping legislation such as The Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act, or more commonly known as the USA PATRIOT Act. This legislation provides the government with much latitude when it comes to accessing property or records about individuals and keeping individuals under surveillance.

Whether such measures are necessary or not is up for debate and continues to be argued in both directions. However, Jenkins' caution is worth noting: He is very careful to observe that "a less benign government" can also misuse the authority it has. With legislation such as the Patriot Act and programs such as the NSA's surveillance program among others, the executive branch holds within its hands immense ability to go about searching, seizing and interrogating anyone and anything it pleases.

And though we hope that our elected officials will act for the good of our nation and with regard to the rights and liberties that our founding fathers prescribed, there is no guarantee that the outcome will be so benevolent. After all, our elected officials are also human beings and while they may think that they are doing the right thing, simply thinking doesn't make it so. We now know and understand that interning U.S. citizens of Japanese descent during WWII was neither right nor constitutional. Many people make the same argument for detainees at Guantanamo. Yet the difference is that those incidents were or currently are restricted to certain populations. It doesn't make them right, but because they affected a small portion of the population, they were or continue to be tolerated. What if that restriction was taken away? Though it is unlikely that the U.S. government will use its powers against all Americans in as abusive a way as was done with Japanese-Americans or the detainees at Guantanamo, Jenkins is right to be worried. Our legislators have put us on a path that could get much more dangerous if we aren't looking ahead to what we've set up for ourselves.

The views expressed in this article are solely of the author and do not represent The Commonwealth Club of California.