Debra J. Saunders

If anyone can show me that the National Security Agency, under order from President Bush or top aides, eavesdropped on Hillary Clinton or Ted Kennedy or some prominent partisan critic, I'll change my tune and see what this administration is doing as a threat to civil liberties. Until then, I can only see the attacks on an NSA surveillance program -- on Monday the Senate Judiciary Committee grilled Attorney General Alberto Gonzales over the program that allowed officials to data-mine information from international phone calls and the Internet -- as ill-conceived, partisan and dangerous.

 Ill-conceived? The Sept. 11 commission's purpose was to figure out why authorities did not connect the dots and prevent those deadly terrorist attacks. Now, Washington is scolding the NSA for using state-of-the-art technology to try to connect more dots.

 Partisan? Yes, there are Republicans who have questioned the NSA program. Still, most Democrats won't give the Bushies the same break they'd hand to a Democratic administration in a heartbeat.

 After all, the Clinton administration conducted warrantless searches in an American's home. His name was Aldrich Ames, and he later pleaded guilty to spying for the former Soviet Union while working for the CIA. As The Washington Post reported in 1994, "government officials decided in the Ames case that no warrant was required because the searches were conducted for 'foreign intelligence purposes.'" There was no huge outcry that Clintonia should have obtained a warrant.

 Former Clinton Justice official Jamie Gorelick contended in a letter to the Judiciary Committee that the president had "the inherent authority to authorize foreign intelligence physical searches" -- but that, after Ames, the administration later sought to change the FISA law to include physical searches because "it would be better" to have congressional and judicial oversight of those searches.

 It would be better? That's it? Gorelick won't say that the Bush NSA program is illegal, as some senators charge, but only that her testimony for the FISA change in 1994 "does not address that question." That should tell you that the legality of the NSA program is, at worst, debatable.

 Dangerous? Actually, it's only dangerous if Washington manages to bury vital intelligence information that allows a terrorist attack which might have been thwarted to occur.

 Critics ask: Why didn't the NSA simply seek warrants retroactively? They're as easy to get as candy. Why, the FISA courts only rejected four out of tens of thousands.

Debra J. Saunders

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