Spies like us

Kathleen Parker
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Posted: Dec 31, 2005 12:05 AM

I've been trying for several days now to get upset about the National Security Agency's eavesdropping program. No, wait, make that President George W. Bush's illegal, warrantless, domestic spying scandal.

That sounds more darkly nefarious, more richly conspiratorial and, most important, more impeachable. But is it true? Is Bush spying illegally on Americans? As usual, it depends on whose head is talking and how one spins the yarn.

"The president has authorized a domestic spying program without court approval" sounds like Big Brother is breathing down all our necks. "The president has authorized national security agents to wiretap suspected terrorists" sounds like common sense.

Thus, try as I might, I can't muster outrage over what appears to be a reasonable action in the wake of 9/11. As a rule, I'm as averse as anyone to having people "spying" on me. I'm also as devoted to protecting civil liberties as any other American.

But the privilege of debating our constitutional rights requires first that we be alive. If federal agents want to listen in on suspected terrorists as they plot their next mass murder, please allow me to turn up the volume.

Meanwhile, unless I start placing calls to Peshawar using phrases such as "I want my 72 virgins now," then I figure I'm safe to make my next hair appointment without fear of exposure. OK, fine, so I highlight.

I'm not making light of legitimate concerns about government power over private lives - vigilance is critical and debate worthwhile, but this seems like a manufactured controversy. It also reminds us yet again that America's decency may be her greatest weakness.

It is our nature to project onto others the principles, values and qualities we hold dear. But it is our enemies' nature - and their strategy - to take advantage of those same principles. If not for our open-heartedness toward diversity and our generous spirit in welcoming all comers to these shores, Sept. 11, 2001, might never have happened.

Instead, 19 terrorists traveled freely and lived among us undetected because we were too fat, dumb and happy to imagine that anyone would want to kill us. We were innocent then, but no more. Now we look for dots and try to connect them. We use sophisticated technology to track calls, collate data, and match suspicious-sounding words with names and numbers to create a mosaic of potentially murderous intent.

Sometimes we might get it right and prevent another attack; sometimes we might mistakenly eavesdrop on an innocent conversation. What we save - possibly thousands of lives - compared with what we lose (mostly the exposure of our embarrassingly dull lives) would seem sufficiently self-evident to preclude the meme-driven hysteria now clotting airwaves: Bush lied; Bush spied. And, oh yes, People Died.

Or maybe not. Maybe people didn't die because federal agents acted in the moment and wiretapped someone they thought might be a threat to U.S. security. Maybe thousands didn't get blown up on the Brooklyn Bridge as Iyman Faris had plotted because agents wiretapped Faris' phone.

Now we learn that Faris, who pleaded guilty in October 2003 to working with al-Qaida, is prepared to sue Bush for illegally wiretapping him. The crux of his case would be that Bush's NSA policy violated the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which requires a warrant from a special court before an American citizen can be wiretapped.

That, at least, is his attorney's position. Other legal authorities assert that Bush is well within his constitutional authority to pursue foreign intelligence and to monitor communications without a warrant.  For more on this, read "Unwarranted Complaints" in the Dec. 27 New York Times by David B. Rivkin and Lee A. Casey, both lawyers who served in the Justice Department in the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations.

However the fine legal points are resolved, the current tenor of debate seems out of tune with events. In theory, I don't want to be wiretapped without due process, no matter how unlikely it is that anyone would want to know the shade of my highlights.

But in practice, the task of getting scores or hundreds of warrants to wiretap terrorism suspects mid-conversation seems impossible to imprudent.

More to the point, I want the government to connect all the little dots it can in order to prevent another slaughter on American soil. How rich that Bush should be treated as a criminal for trying to prevent another 9/11 attack, while a known al-Qaida terrorist could be set free on a technicality.

Our decency may kill us yet.