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 legalityÃ¢€”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 peaceÃ¢€”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 themÃ¢€”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.
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.