Paul Greenberg

So here's a little advisory note, the kind usually found only in the small print that comes with the latest wonder drug: Next time a slew of airliners goes crashing into skyscrapers, the Pentagon, and various other unscheduled destinations, don't call your local phone company for help. That's when our troopers, cops, firefighters and emergency responders in general are suddenly recognized and appreciated. If only for a little while -- until the immediate danger is past and outfits like the CIA, FBI, DIA, and I&A are once again painted as ominous dangers to Americans' privacy.

It occurs to some of us that privacy may not be our most pressing need when aboard a hijacked airliner or trapped in an American outpost under attack, whether in a compound outside Benghazi, Libya, or at the Pentagon itself. At that point our needs may be more immediate and urgent, like survival. But in their clean, climate-conditioned offices, the experts -- in political maneuver, not necessarily national security -- have decided that our intelligence agencies are the real and present danger. And the usual experts won't change their minds till all hell breaks loose. Again.

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Every time our president comes up with one of these brainstorms, the prim visage of a now forgotten American statesman comes to mind: one Henry L. Stimson, who was secretary of state, war and of just about everything else at one time or another under every president from William Howard Taft to Franklin D. Roosevelt. Call him the utility infielder, relief pitcher, and Unidentified Man in Background of every American administration in the first half of the 20th and Most Terrible Century.

The good Mr. Stimson entered not just bureaucratic history but legend when, in one of his less prescient moments, he closed down the government's secret code-breaking agency ("the black chamber") with the high-sounding explanation, "Gentlemen do not read each other's mail." Barack Obama is not the first American statesman to think himself too refined for the dirty work of snooping, otherwise known as protecting the United States of America from all enemies foreign and domestic.

Nor would this be the first time American intelligence work was outsourced to one of our fine private companies. On the morning of December 7, 1941, American codebreakers deciphered a message to Tokyo's ambassadors in Washington that indicated an impending attack on U.S. bases throughout the Pacific, but, ho hum, Army communications were down that morning, so the warning to Pearl Harbor was sent by ... Western Union. It arrived about six hours after the Zeros did.

Now our current president -- and commander-in-chief! -- wants to leave all these not so little matters that the National Security Agency has been handling, like its vast meta-collection of phone calls, to the phone companies, and have our snoops get limited permission from a court to peruse those records every time they think there might be some little coincidence tucked away in there that could use a closer look.

But why sweat the small stuff? It's all probably meaningless, like the 14th part of that diplomatic cable of December 7, 1941. If that little history lesson isn't enough to tell us our president is on the wrong track again, maybe the word of an expert in these sleuthing matters might help: "It has long been an axiom of mine that the little things are infinitely the most important." --Holmes, Sherlock. Even the clues that aren't there can turn out to be key, like the dog that didn't bark. Elementary, my dear Watson.

Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.