Ross Mackenzie

War imposes its tests on those who fight it. Battlefield tests are obvious and widely known, and can be deadly. Tests elsewhere, notably in the realm of law, are less obvious yet potentially as threatening to the survival of liberty and free institutions.

Contemplate the recent past: Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo; questions about torture, detainees and overseas jails; recurring debate about extending the Patriot Act. And now, "sigint" - signals intelligence, the monitoring of enemy telecommunications.

Regarding sigint, some, mostly the usual suspects, are going postal over administration monitoring of international calls involving al-Qaidists - seemingly without adequate congressional or judicial oversight. Privacy rights, we hear, are under challenge as never before. Defeating terrorism may be a noble goal, but not via tactics allowing an unchecked Big Brother to listen to our telephone conversations without our knowledge. One senator speaks of "the equilibrium of our constitutional system," of the dangers of embarking down the "slippery slope" of eavesdropping without warrants.

Some of the concerns are valid - always are, and always require the close attention of civil libertarians. All derive from an overriding fact and must be weighted by it: We are at war.

Consider these statements about sigint:

President Bush, in his State of the Union Address: "To prevent another (9/11-type) attack - based on authority given to me by the Constitution and by statute - I have authorized a terrorist surveillance program to aggressively pursue the international communications of suspected al-Qaida operatives and affiliates to and from America.

"Previous presidents have used the same constitutional authority I have - and federal courts have approved the use of that authority. Appropriate members of Congress have been kept informed. This terrorist surveillance program has helped prevent terrorist attacks. It remains essential to the security of America. If there are people inside our country who are talking with al-Qaida, we want to know about it."

Attorney General Alberto Gonzales: "After Sept. 11, Congress immediately confirmed the president's constitutional authority to 'use all necessary and appropriate force' against 'those nations, organizations or persons he determines' responsible for the attacks. The Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) gave the president the latitude to use a full complement of tools and tactics against our enemy.

Ross Mackenzie

Ross Mackenzie lives with his wife and Labrador retriever in the woods west of Richmond, Virginia. They have two grown sons, both Naval officers.

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