The current hysteria over the president's authorization of some domestic intercepts by the National Security Agency reminds me of similar reaction by liberals to the Cold War. Instead of recognizing communism as a clear and present danger to freedom and liberty here and abroad, many liberals decided the real threat to those values came from anti-communism itself. Anti-anti-communism became the defining characteristic of American liberals, who have never fully recovered their credibility with the American people when it comes to protecting the nation. The inheritors of that liberal tradition might today be defined as anti-anti-terrorists.
Whatever the government does to try to protect us from the threat of Islamic terrorists is immediately suspect. Instead of focusing on the real threat posed by an actual enemy, liberals today are more worried about imagined threats to civil liberties posed by the efforts to counteract terrorism.
Granted, we don't yet know the full extent of the NSA program -- and shouldn't since it is among the most highly sensitive classified programs run by the government. According to the original news stories reporting on the program and the administration's response, however, the NSA has intercepted communications from known terrorists overseas to persons in the United States without seeking a warrant from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. Critics claim this is illegal, citing the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which sets up a procedure for U.S. intelligence services normally prohibited from monitoring U.S. citizens and permanent residents to seek a warrant to do so from the FISA court. The president claims -- and is supported by legal scholars and officials from previous administrations, including the Clinton Justice Department -- that he has the authority to bypass the FISA procedure so long as he is responding to a foreign threat and acting in his role as commander in chief during wartime. Every president since FISA was enacted in 1978, from Jimmy Carter to Bill Clinton, has asserted similar authority, suggesting Bush is no radical in his assumptions. But this is an issue to be resolved in the courts, not in the halls of Congress, which cannot trump the Constitution by statute, much less the opinion pages of the newspaper.
Linda Chavez is chairman of the Center for Equal Opportunity and author of Betrayal: How Union Bosses Shake Down Their Members and Corrupt American Politics .
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