So the NSA has been secretly collecting phone call records of "tens of millions of Americans," according to USA Today's scoop last week. It amounts to what one source called an effort to construct the "largest database ever assembled in the world" with a goal of tracking every domestic call in the United States.
So much for all those assurances from the President that NSA spying concerned only suspected terrorists, and only calls between the United States and foreign countries.
But maybe those transparently false assurances had the desired effect after all. Just as telling Americans we had to go to war with Iraq because of a nonexistent link to 9/11 created the feeling that the war there is keeping us safe, all the nonsense about NSA spying gives people the vague idea that the government is keeping bin Laden on the run.
A Washington-Post/ABC News poll after the news broke found that Americans are more concerned about terrorism than they are about their privacy.
In other words, most respondents buy the idea that the Bush Administration is hard at work defending the nation from terrorists. What that has to do with assembling a database of every call any one of us ever makes is not entirely clear.
The way the question is framed, you'd think we had to choose between being blown up on an airplane and having the government sort through our personal business. Quick, which do you prefer? Obviously, most of us would take the option that doesn't involve going down in a ball of fire. "Give me liberty or give me death" sounds great, but let's be practical . . .This strategy--of threatening us that we'll all die unless we concede some constitutional rights--has been working wonderfully for the Administration. But it can't last forever. Fear wears off. We're left with the reality that our government is continuing to write itself blank checks to intrude on our rights, wage undeclared war, and undermine democracy.
The more the press and members of Congress point it out, the more quickly we can put an end to this dark era. It's up to the members of the Senate Intelligence Committee in their confirmation hearings on Air Force General Michael Hayden (who was in charge of the NSA spying program and is now Bush's nominee to head the CIA) to ask tough questions. As Senator Patrick Leahy, Democrat of Vermont, put it: "How does he justify spying on millions of Americans?"
The Senators need to push beyond the Administration's whitewash. Otherwise, they signal that there is no line they will draw as long as the Administration justifies violating Americans' rights by invoking the war on terror.
Unfortunately, the Administration's case was helped considerably by a front-page article in the Sunday New York Times on the eve of Hayden's confirmation hearings, which could have come straight from the White House press office. It described tense meetings after 9/11, in which the President asked how, working within the law, could he keep Americans safe from terrorists. "There is a way," Hayden is quoted as bravely declaring. Then the idea that spying on Americans without a warrant is perfectly legal is presented, as if it were a legitimate theory. (No mention is made of the Administration's cockeyed claims that the spying is legal because Congress approved it with its resolution for using force against Afghanistan.) The Times also omits mention of the fact that Hayden persuaded the paper to sit on the NSA spying story for a full year before breaking news of the program. The Sunday valentine to Hayden looks like a way of repairing a strained relationship with an important source.
We're going to need a more vigorous effort than that to uphold basic American values if we don't want to slide into a police state.