Here's what happened. After 9/11, authorities found a bunch of e-mail addresses and phone numbers in the phones and computers of confirmed terrorists. They tracked down those leads. Most of the people the NSA started eavesdropping on - about 7,000 - lived overseas, and their phone calls were to other foreigners living abroad. But, according to Risen's book, "about 500 people" living in the U.S. who were in contact with suspected terrorists had their communications tapped. Risen calls this "large-scale" spying on the American people even though, as the Weekly Standard recently noted, this constitutes "1.7 ten-thousandths of 1 percent of the U.S. population."
Now, forgive me for not loading up my car with bottled water and canned goods and heading off into the hills to fight with the partisans, but I just don't see what the big deal is. Yes, yes, "slippery slopes" and all that. Gotcha. What else do you have? Because that isn't enough. If you go looking for slippery slopes, you'll always find them. That doesn't mean they're really there. The Patriot Act was called a banana peel on the path to hell, and yet it has turned out to be very difficult to even keep it alive.
What makes this bout of St. Vitus' maniacal dancing seem so opportunistic is that after 9/11, we heard constantly about the need to be more flexible and creative. The 9/11 commission's chief complaint was that authorities suffered from a lack of imagination when it came to terrorism.
Before 9/11, the system for listening to conversations between terrorists abroad and their accomplices on our soil had all the flexibility and creativity of John Ashcroft at a disco contest. Even with warrants issued by the special Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court, the National Security Agency usually had to erase the "American" side of the conversation between suspected terrorists before handing them over to the FBI.
Most Americans think that sort of thing is crazy. But, to keep the frenzy alive, we talk about spying on "certain Americans" - when in reality we're trying to stop barbarians from killing "certain Americans."