Time for Honest Debate On NSA Surveillance Program

May 8, 2006

Does anyone really believe President Bush wants to spy on innocent old ladies or any other group of innocent Americans? Does anyone — besides the loony left and unwitting dupes they have convinced — really believe President Bush has a sinister desire to consolidate executive power, make himself a dictator and eviscerate the Fourth Amendment? These are some of the things the knee-jerk opponents of President Bush’s selection of Air Force Gen. Michael Hayden to head the CIA apparently believe.

Gen. Hayden is considered to be one of the architects of the administration’s NSA warrantless surveillance program, so critics and skeptics of that program have jumped in to oppose him for that reason alone, though other objections have also surfaced, such as that a military leader shouldn’t run a civilian intelligence organization.

Political leaders, even certain Republicans like Sen. Arlen Specter, have promised to exploit the Hayden confirmation hearings as an opportunity to inquire into the propriety of this controversial program.

Like some other people, it occurred to me that President Bush is more than ready to have a public debate over his NSA program. Otherwise, he surely wouldn’t have chosen a man whose intimate connection to the program is well known and vulnerable to political posturing.

I, too, welcome this debate, though proponents of the program begin at a bit of a disadvantage because security concerns preclude them from producing evidence that would vindicate their decision to implement the plan. But philosophical and practical arguments, apart from the specifics of evidence in particular “searches” will be fair game.

I won’t rehash all the arguments for and against the program, except to say that its opponents have shamelessly mischaracterized it as “domestic” spying when one of the parties to the communications must be outside the United States. They’ve tried to create the impression that the privacy of innocent civilians will be violated in these “broad sweeps.” And they’ve portrayed the program as an important part of an overall pattern of the Bush administration to trample on civil liberties and expand presidential powers.

But the only communications intercepted under the program are those where at least one party is a terrorist, a suspected terrorist or has ties to terrorists. Absent cases of mistaken identity, which can also occur with warrants, it’s hard to imagine that many innocent people will be the subject of such surveillance.

If opponents of the surveillance program were acting in good faith, why would they mischaracterize the program as domestic spying? I can certainly understand a strong public reaction against a president violating civil rights of American citizens, especially for his own purposes, like Richard Nixon was alleged to have done with his enemies list. In those cases, the president would have a personal or political motive to abuse the civil rights of citizens.

But what sinister motive would President Bush possibly have for eavesdropping on non-terrorists? Does anyone really believe he has anything to do with micromanaging the intercepts, much less selecting the targets of the surveillance? Does anyone really believe the United States has the resources to waste time spying on innocents?

Moreover, does anyone really believe that President Bush, Gen. Hayden, Secr. Rumsfeld or any other major player would support this warrantless surveillance program if it were not necessary? That is, propaganda aside, does any reasonable person truly believe that if we could always accomplish the necessary surveillance by going through the sometimes laborious and time-consuming warrant process, the administration would insist on the right to do it without warrants?

The only people who believe that are those inclined to believe the president wants power for the sake of it, or for the sake of abusing the civil liberties and privacy of American citizens. Folks, that’s just silly and absurd on its face.

I am confident the administration would not be conducting warrantless searches unless it believed the delay involved in obtaining a warrant in many cases would jeopardize our national security and possibly American lives. Why is this so difficult to comprehend in an age where terrorists have unlimited access to disposable cell phones and other high-tech communication devices?

The president is not playing war games here, but some of his opponents are playing political games. Fortunately, it appears the American people instinctively understand that the naysayers are long on civil liberties hysteria and short on national security concerns. Let their posturing continue as this public debate unfolds. It is time to have this out and to expose the privacy charlatans for who they are.