"The critical question before the Committee was to determine how the fundamental liberties of the people can be maintained in the course of the Government's effort to protect their security. The delicate balance between these basic goals of our system of government is often difficult to strike, but it can, and must, be achieved."
That is not a statement from a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which last Monday heard testimony from Attorney General Alberto Gonzales about the Bush administration's efforts to monitor the conversations of terrorist suspects. It is from the introduction to the 1976 "Final Report of the Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities," sometimes referred to as the Church Committee after its chairman, Sen. Frank Church, Idaho Democrat.
The New York Times recalled those "glorious" (for the left) days by reprinting a picture of Church talking to reporters during the 1975 hearings into the misuse of intelligence gathering by the Nixon administration. Though Nixon used government agencies to spy on his domestic political enemies, the Times wants its readers to believe that what the Bush administration is doing by monitoring phone calls and other communications between terrorist suspects outside the country, and those inside, is similar behavior. What the newspaper fails to acknowledge is that the findings of the Church Committee led to the dismantling of many useful intelligence-gathering operations, thus limiting our ability to gather precisely the type of intelligence that would have been useful in stopping 9/11.
Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee denied they are trying to write a bill of rights for terrorists. Ranking Member Patrick Leahy of Vermont assured his colleagues and those watching C-SPAN, which carried the hearing live, that he wants to do everything possible to find terrorists before they kill more of us. He just wants to make sure it is done "legally." Democrats appeared not to accept Gonzales' testimony that the surveillance is being done legally, preferring to make political points rather than capture and defeat the enemy.
The danger in tinkering with intelligence gathering is that the tinkerers sometimes go too far. In its effort to curtail domestic eavesdropping and foreign spying 30 years ago, a Democratic Congress used the Church Committee findings on illegal domestic surveillance in a way that some analysts believe subsequently curtailed our effectiveness to obtain information vital to the nation's security. The CIA came to rely more on satellites and other technologies and less on human intelligence. The result was fewer people who spoke the languages of the countries in which they operated and the consequence of that has been a reduced ability to gather information that could only be obtained on the ground.
Politicians, egged on by the crusading media (who were feeling especially self-righteous after "bringing down" President Nixon), resembled constitutional fundamentalists. Today's left quotes the text of the Constitution as if it means what it says on searches and seizures, though when it comes to behavior the left wishes to condone, the Constitution morphs into a "living document" in constant need of updating to suit the times. Which is it?
Liberals in the 1970s began suggesting that virtually all American spying is unconstitutional. Soviet and Chinese spies were to be expected, but we shouldn't "be like them." A similar double standard exists today in much of the big media and among certain liberal politicians of both parties. The enemy does what it wants without restraint. We put shackles on ourselves and are shocked when those without any attack us. Then we ask, "What went wrong?"
In his defense of the president's order to monitor limited communications between foreign terrorist suspects and people in the United States, Attorney General Gonzales listed a number of presidents, Democrat and Republican, dating back to the 19th century, who had used far more invasive and widespread tactics to gather intelligence they believed crucial to defending the nation.
Should the United States be attacked again, the next congressional hearings (assuming Congress survives the attack) will focus on why more wasn't done to protect us. More is now being done and public opinion seems to be fine with it for now, complaints from liberal Democrats (and a few liberal Republicans) notwithstanding.
Cal Thomas is co-author (with Bob Beckel) of the book, "Common Ground: How to Stop the Partisan War That is Destroying America".
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