The world is a dangerous place, as Americans are quite aware.
But it is the often overlooked threats — an aging electrical infrastructure and cyber-crime, are two examples — that have Dr. Michael Hoeflich worried.
“There’s a reason my students call me ‘Dr. Doom,’” said Hoeflich, a professor at the University of Kansas School of Law.
Hoeflich was in Iola Thursday to speak with Rotarians about homeland security, particularly with how it affects today’s society.
The topic is more than a passing interest for Hoeflich, one of the creators of a new master’s program dealing with homeland security, law and public policy at KU.
Simply put, the program is designed to train professionals to work in emergency management and homeland security, both in military and civilian positions.
Hoeflich was invited to speak in Iola by long-time Rotarian Clyde Toland. While in town, Hoeflich also sat down with the Register.
Homeland security discussions these days centers on bickering about immigration or a much-ballyhooed border wall, Hoeflich said, when they should address more insidious things such as cyber security.
“It’s been 16 years since 9/11, and we have a tendency to forget. We still obviously remember 9/11, but we forget the problems that led to it, and those still exist.
“If anything,” he said. “They may be worse.”
Which is where the Department of Homeland Security’s emphasis may be misguided.
“Most of what we use as anti-terror legislation is under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978,” Hoeflich said, which was updated following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
“But most of that legislation deals with foreign powers and agents of foreign powers,” he said. “Increasingly, terrorists are not a part of a group. They’re lone wolves.
And in the United States the most recent terrorist attacks have not come from foreigners.
“They tend to be American citizens who have, for whatever reason, been radicalized.”
The United States lost a key tool in combating terrorist networks about two years ago, Hoeflich contends, after Edward Snowden, a former CIA employee, leaked thousands of documents to media outlets detailing the efforts by intelligence agencies — in particular, the National Security Agency — to collect data regarding communications among American citizens.
The effort was created as a provision in the aforementioned Patriot Act.
With the cooperation of telephone companies and internet providers, the government was allowed to intercept and archive information about phone calls, emails and other communications.
While the content of the communications was not revealed, the callers’ names and their locations were.
“If one of our intelligence agencies discovered a known terrorist was using a particular phone number, they could take that number, run it through a program that allowed them to identify whether any archived numbers matched,” he explained. “That allowed them to find networks. That’s how you find out who’s building terror networks.
“When Snowden made all those disclosures to the Guardian, it became immediately a hot political issue,” Hoeflich said. “All of the headlines read, “NSA is spying on 300 million Americans. Yes, but in a very limited way. They weren’t listening to phone calls, but just getting call details.”
Regardless, the effects in Washington, D.C., were seismic.
Lawsuits were filed within weeks demanding the program be dismantled.
Congress acted promptly, essentially ending the program, via the USA Freedom Act of 2015.
“It basically said we can’t do bulk collections. What we could do was in a limited framework, and we could only hold that information for a short amount of time.”
Simply put, “we lost a tool.”
Civil libertarians, conversely, rejoiced. “Over the long term, I don’t know if it was a good decision or not,” said Hoeflich, who describes himself as a libertarian, but also had little problem with the data collections.
“Personally, I don’t care if the government wants to know who I’m calling,” he said. “If they want to know who’s contacting me? Fine. If they’re collecting that data and it helps them identify terrorists and stops terrorist attacks, that’s fine by me.
“I would have a different opinion if they were collecting the substance of my calls,” he said. “I don’t want them reading my emails or looking at my call details.
“I’m not saying which is right or wrong,” he continued. “But these were difficult decisions that were made in very quick reaction to Snowden’s treason. These are things the public hasn’t even thought about. These were quick, knee-jerk reactions.”