Democrats Playing Fast and Loose with National Security?

Joe Klein has a TIME editiorial entitled, ” Joe Klein: How to Stay Out of Power – Why liberal democrats are playing too fast and too loose with issues of war and peace.” He notes that top Democrats, notably House minority leader Nancy Pelosi, are misleading the public about the nature of the NSA data mining operation and their own objections to it.

For too many liberals, all secret intelligence activities are “fruit,” and bitter fruit at that. The government is presumed guilty of illegal electronic eavesdropping until proven innocent. This sort of civil-liberties fetishism is a hangover from the Vietnam era, when the Nixon Administration wildly exceeded all bounds of legality—spying on antiwar protesters and civil rights leaders. […] The liberal reaction is also an understandable consequence of the Bush Administration’s tendency to play fast and loose on issues of war and peace—rushing to war after overhyping the intelligence on Saddam Hussein’s nuclear-weapons program, appearing to tolerate torture, keeping secret prisons in foreign countries and denying prisoners basic rights. At the very least, the Administration should have acted, with alacrity, to update the federal intelligence laws to include the powerful new technologies developed by the NSA.

But these concerns pale before the importance of the program. It would have been a scandal if the NSA had not been using these tools to track down the bad guys. There is evidence that the information harvested helped foil several plots and disrupt al-Qaeda operations.

There is also evidence, according to U.S. intelligence officials, that since the New York Times broke the story, the terrorists have modified their behavior, hampering our efforts to keep track of them—but also, on the plus side, hampering their ability to communicate with one another.

Pelosi made clear to me that she considered Hayden, now Deputy Director of National Intelligence, an honorable man who would not overstep his bounds. “I trust him,” she said. “I haven’t accused him of anything. I was, and remain, concerned that he has the proper authority to do what he is doing.” A legitimate concern, but the Democrats are on thin ice here. Some of the wilder donkeys talked about a possible Bush impeachment after the NSA program was revealed.

The latest version of the absolutely necessary Patriot Act, which updates the laws regulating the war on terrorism and contains civil-liberties improvements over the first edition, was nearly killed by a stampede of Senate Democrats. Most polls indicate that a strong majority of Americans favor the act, and I suspect that a strong majority would favor the NSA program as well, if its details were declassified and made known.

In fact, liberal Democrats are about as far from the American mainstream on these issues as Republicans were when they invaded the privacy of Terri Schiavo’s family in the right-to-die case last year.

But there is a difference. National security is a far more important issue, and until the Democrats make clear that they will err on the side of aggressiveness in the war against al-Qaeda, they will probably not regain the majority in Congress or the country.

Photo A majority of Americans want the Bush administration to get court approval before eavesdropping on people inside the United States, even if those calls might involve suspected terrorists, an AP-Ipsos poll shows. Klein is right on two counts here. First, there are some legitimate questions about the scope of this program and especially about the Bush administration’s assertions of power to conduct it without congressional authority. Second, by seeking to turn this into the next Watergate, the Democrats are overplaying their hand and may well see it backfire.

An AP-Ipsos poll released over the weekend showed that an overwhelming majority of Americans think a warrant should be required for domestic eavesdropping. I believe these numbers are distorted by a misunderstanding of the nature of the program, caused by poor reporting and the constant use of the term “wiretapping.” Still, the Democrats are on firm ground in challenging the administration on civil liberties and legal/checks and balances grounds:

“We’re a nation of laws. … That means that everybody has to live by the law, including the administration,” said [Peter Ahr of Caldwell, N.J., a religious studies professor at Seton Hall University], 64, a Democrat who argues for checks and balances. “For the administration to simply go after wiretaps on their own without anyone else’s say-so is a violation of that principle.”

I’m guessing Ahr’s views are typical of the majority–misinformed but nonetheless right-headed.

While people are leery of the way the president went about launching the program, however, a recent Rasmussen poll showed that 64% of Americans think the government should be allowed to intercept telephone conversations between terrorism suspects in other countries and people living in the United States. People want the president to take reasonable measures to protect them from terrorists, they just want it to be done within the law.

David Tell, writing for the Weekly Standard editorial team, points out that the New York Times was advocating such a program before they published the story that started the “scandal.”

“Terrorist threats are not just another species of consumer information,” the Times reminded its readers; “they are a form of intelligence that depends on secrecy in collection, expertise in interpretation and extreme care in dissemination.” Bad guys read the newspaper, too, in other words. And even well-intentioned public disclosures might give those bad guys an advantage: “Valuable sources of intelligence would dry up as terrorists aware of information leaks sought to eliminate the leakers.” Best to keep everybody in the dark.

That was in April 1989. As recently as November 2000, the paper of record still thought it “understandable” for the government to investigate and prosecute media leaks that compromise “the secrecy of the nation’s most sensitive intelligence gathering systems.” Programs involving “electronic intercepts and other data obtained by advanced satellites and other devices” were a particular concern. The more they learned about American signals intelligence capabilities, after all, the easier it would become for our “adversaries to cut off access to vitally important information about threats to the United States.” So “responsible news organizations” would want to be especially “mindful of the security concerns” when reporting on these surveillance initiatives.

Meanwhile, responsible news organizations might also want to consider explicitly endorsing a joint congressional investigative committee’s call for the extension of such surveillance to U.S.-based targets. “The CIA and the National Security Agency, which does electronic eavesdropping, will also have to devote more of their efforts to analyzing international terrorist threats inside the United States,” the New York Times announced in July 2003.

Now, over two years later, the Times has decided to reveal that on the very day its editorial page offered this suggestion, just such an NSA domestic surveillance effort was already underway, on orders from the president. And all of a sudden, responsible news organizations everywhere are loudly warning that the End of Democracy is nigh. It is an outrage that George W. Bush did what the New York Times recommended–according, most notably, and weirdly, to the New York Times itself.

The Democrats are on solid ground when they are expressing concern about the civil liberties of Americans and trying to protect the prerogatives of Congress vis-a-vis the president. They need to reign in their impulse to go off the deep end, however, if that’s to translate into electoral advantage.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Herb says:

    Since the 2000 election, the democrats have played fast and loose with every issue inaginable. National Securty is no exception. The democrats only desire is to “get the goods” on anyone and anything having to do with the Bush administration. Their lust to regain the power thay had has not only comprimised our National Securty, but has also kept this country devided in a time of war which has led to many of our troops being killed with the “aid and comfort” they provided to our enemies in the mid east. There is no doubt in my mind that the democrats will “sell the entire” nation to anyone and our enemies in order to regain the power they once had and lost to a more informed society that had the common sense to see through their deception. I have no fear that the democrats will ever regain power with the obstructionist and self serving agenda that is spread about by the likes of Polosi, Reed and their fellow democrats who seek only to regain power at any cost to our country and the American people.

    If anyone thinks differently, watch the “dog and pony” show the democrats put on this week with the Aleto hearings. The true colors of the democrats will come out showing their dark and sinister agenda.

  2. legion says:

    Actually, I believe part of the issue is how this country handled the 9-11 attacks in the first place. In the immediate aftermath, we were all stunned; panicked, even. But now, over 4 years later, we can all see the actual impact of the attacks themselves… while devastating and horrifying, they were not going to bring down our nation. Maybe if that last plane had actually hit the Capitol bldg, things might have been different, but I think the American people believe terrorism, while still a potential threat to our lives and livelihood, is no longer a threat to the _existence of our nation_. And I think that’s why there’s not a whole lot of support for things like warrantless wiretaps and random searches. It’s just not a big enough threat to sacrifice our rights to anymore.

  3. Herb says:

    Legion:

    Do you live in neverland? Who do you think set the bombs in London, Madrid, Bali and the many places thruout the world? Do you ever follow the news events of the day, week or month? Gads, Legion, get with it.

    As for the American people and the NSA activity, a majorty support the evesdropping. And, why don’t you think that the NSA, CIA and FBI activities have not stopped any number of porential threats to our country. Use some common sense Legion and be man enough to give credit where credit is due.

    I think your problem lies with your clouded leftists way of thinking and your overwhelming desire to “Get Bush” at any cost, just like the democrats are doing and is why people don’t trust them with the power of Congress and the Whitehouse.

    Guys like you are the best thing that ever happened to the Republican Party.

  4. Tano says:

    I don’t understand the dispute here.

    No doubt, we all support the notion that eavesdropping on terrorists should occur.

    The AP poll mentioned also demonstrates that a healthy majority also believes that this eavesdropping activity should be overseen by a court, through an insistence on the aquisition of warrents. (probably would be an overwhelming majority for that position if the question were asked at a time when the issue were not a hot button, partisan issue).

    So we all basically agree. The government should do what is necessary to protect us, but we shouldn’t abandon the core American notion of checks and balances to protect us from the unaccountable power of the executive – that would inevitably lead to tyranny (the great insight of our founders).

    Bush is not being criticized for doing the eavesdropping. He is being criticized for trying to avoid the (minimal levels of) oversight that is at the root of our system of checks and balances. As extreme as it may seem, impeachment, or the threat of it, is the only recourse that the legislature (or the people, through the legislature) has in order to thwart a proto-tyrant in the executive branch. I think we all hope that wiser heads in the administration would respect the rule of law, long before is ever comes to impeachment.

  5. legion says:

    Herb,
    I’ve watched you here for months now, and I’ve tried to avoid biting into your constant trolling, but jeez – you’re just a deliberately insulting prick.

    Your response to my post is a) one big disconnected ad hominem insult, and b) completely unrelated to either what I said or the discussion topic. I insulted nobody; I accused neither Bush nor the NSA nor the GOP of anything; I stated my guess as to why a lot of people are questioning the need for the wiretaps, the Patriot Act, etc.

    Speaking of which; you’re either dead wrong in your information, or deliberately lying to cover your lack of factual support. The poll you’re using as evidence (http://www.rasmussenreports.com/2005/NSA.htm) shows 64% support, but only for the generic question ‘should the NSA be allowed to perform taps on conversations between terrorism suspects and people in the US’… That activity, following the proper procedures, has always been legal and _nobody_ one any side of this discussion has disagreed with that. The _actual issue_ is whether the NSA should be able to do that without getting warrants or submitting to any oversight on what/who they’re tapping. _That_ poll, to the best of my knowledge, has not been run.

    So if you’re not “man enough” to actually debate facts, without jetting off to insult-land, you can go back into the ignore file.

  6. Herb says:

    Tano:

    Bush is being critized for being Bush, not because he performed his constitutional duty of protecting the securty of the American people. That is plain and simple fact. The democrats have mede it quite clear that they care little or nothing about terrorists coming or going into this country as well as talking to their fellow terrorists via phone or on a computer. The fact that Bush did perform in accordance with the Constitution without the consent of a bunch or leftest liberal democrats or a liberal leaning leftest court is the issue here and not one of oversight.

    What makes you think that the Legislature is performing in your or the peoples “best intrests”? If that ever happens, it will be a day to celebrate.

    While i can somewhat see your point here, you seem to arrive at your conclusions thru an “Idealists” frame of mind, and that is not how this government performs. Money and Power is the name of the political game and this entire issue is that and only that. The democrats had this in their back pockets for 40 years and are now on the outside looking in, and that is the sole reason why they continue to do everything possible to keep this country devided with their obstructionist agenda and self serving tactics of trying to make Bush look bad on each and every issue confronting our country.

  7. Herb says:

    Legion:

    You have a “POTTY MOUTH”.

  8. spencer says:

    Bush is the one who has spent some 2,000 lives to transform Iraq from a secular dictatorship to a shiite theoracy rather then fight the people who attacked us. Bush is the one who is losing the WOT, not the democrats.

    Maybe you can explain how it is the democrats fault that the 9/11 Commission gave the administration almost all Ds and Fs for its attempts to follow up on its bipartisant recommendations.

    Let me give you one exampple. there has still not been a single penny spent on rebuilding the commo systems the NY police and fireman use to so they can communicate with each other although Bush promised numerous times to finance this change. So how is it the democrats fault that Bush has not proposed any legislation to do this?

  9. anjin-san says:

    While we are on the subject of playing fast & loose with national security, why don’t we discuss how often the terror alert lever has risen when Bush is in political trouble?

  10. ICallMasICM says:

    ‘why don’t we discuss how often the terror alert lever has risen when Bush is in political trouble?’

    because it only exists in your paranoid delusions.

  11. legion says:

    because it only exists in your paranoid delusions.

    Heh. ICallM needs to ‘C’ a bit more news… or maybe just talk to Tom Ridge, the guy supposedly in charge of the terror alerts…


    The Bush administration periodically put the USA on high alert for terrorist attacks even though then-Homeland Security chief Tom Ridge argued there was only flimsy evidence to justify raising the threat level, Ridge now says.

  12. anjin-san says:

    I call,

    Perhaps you should consider getting some news other then reading blogs that agree with your worldview…

  13. ICallMasICM says:

    ‘The Bush administration periodically put the USA on high alert for terrorist attacks even though then-Homeland Security chief Tom Ridge argued there was only flimsy evidence to justify raising the threat level, Ridge now says.’

    Funny how if you read the article nowhere does it say there was flimsy evidence. He says there were disagreements on the use of the system. Talk about writing your conclusions first.

    ‘Perhaps you should consider getting some news other then reading blogs that agree with your worldview’

    Perhaps you should try to come up with a thought other than anytime something happens that it’s a distraction from something that you think does partisan harm. Or maybe just a thought.

  14. legion says:

    OK, here’s a thought – Ridge says ‘periodically’. That implies that it happened more than just a few times, possibly on a semi-regular basis.
    Ridge was the head of Homeland Security – he _owned_ the terror alert system.
    If Bush and/or Cheney (those being the only people I understand have the authority to override a full cabinet secretary) semi-regularly overrode the decisions of the head of DHS on the appropriate terror alert level, I can only concieve of two reasons:
    a) it was being done for partisan reasons, to gain political points during the election campaigns,
    b) Bush and Cheney had (repeatedly) more info about the actual threat level to this nation than the director of homeland security. If this is the case, it’s bad enough that Ridge wasn’t in the loop on something this critical to his job, but the fact that he’s talking it about it in this context means he was _never_ let in on the info or justification by his bosses. Doesn’t that bother you in the slightest?

  15. anjin-san says:

    Legion,

    You are using reason & good sense, they are generally ineffective on Bushites…

    Icall,

    I am concerned about damage to this country, not partisan advantage, When Pres. Reagan was in office, I was proud to be a member of the GOP, so I am hardly a far left idealog. Placing President party over country is a trick the Bush crowd perfected, you might want to consider taking them to task for it,,,