Jacob Sullum

Because he's resigning, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales won't have much chance to exercise his powers under the Protect America Act. The new law charges the attorney general with determining which international communications involving people in the U.S. will be subject to warrantless surveillance.

Members of Congress were so distrustful of Gonzales that they insisted he share this authority with the director of national intelligence, Mike McConnell. But while McConnell, the apolitical expert, may enjoy a better reputation for honesty and independence than Gonzales, the longtime Bush crony, the two men seem to have similar instincts about privacy and executive power.

In a recent interview with the El Paso Times, McConnell regrets the debate about the National Security Agency's warrantless surveillance program: "The fact (that) we're doing it this way means that some Americans are going to die," he says. "Because it's so public."

McConnell is trying to frighten Americans into supporting President Bush's anti-terrorism policies. Worse, he is charging critics of those policies with complicity in murder.

As Steven Aftergood, director of the Federation of American Scientists' Project on Government Secrecy, observes, "He's basically saying that democracy is going to kill Americans." And not just democracy but constitutional government of any kind, because by McConnell's logic, anything that interferes with the president's unilateral decisions regarding national security "means that some Americans are going to die."

McConnell wants to have it both ways: Terrorists are so sophisticated that the government needs broad surveillance powers to thwart them, yet they are too stupid to realize someone might be listening to their phone calls or reading their e-mails. Evidently the possibility occurred to them only after they read about it in the newspaper.

Because the discussion of NSA surveillance has not revealed information specific enough to help terrorists escape detection, it seems clear McConnell's real concern is that public debate might impede Bush's policies. This is a new twist on the old argument for secrecy: Information must be kept from the public not just to keep it from our enemies but to prevent the public from objecting to measures the president considers necessary to protect national security.

Jacob Sullum

Jacob Sullum is a senior editor at Reason magazine and a contributing columnist on Townhall.com.
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