The profound polarization of American politics in recent years has produced a good many striking phenomena, but few of them as striking, or as damaging, as the disclosure of various government efforts to discover and forestall future terrorist attacks on this country.
The formula is simple. A reporter for one of the many liberal newspapers or TV outlets hostile to the administration develops a similarly minded contact in one of the agencies charged with protecting the country against such attacks. The contact (whom the reporter guarantees against disclosure of his or her identity) tells the reporter about some technique the government is using to try to identify Al Qaeda agents planning mischief. The technique often involves detecting communications between such agents, and therefore must pass the test of not infringing impermissibly on normal communications between innocent American citizens.
The administration knows this, and takes great care to make sure that its surveillance techniques pass that test. Thus, before it taps a communication between any two people in the United States, it applies for a warrant from a special court set up by Congress to pass on such requests. In the case of communications between a person in the United States and a suspected al Qaeda agent abroad, however, the Attorney General has ruled that such a warrant is not required under the law Congress passed. And the government has similarly obtained, and assembled into a vast database, records of the calls made from one telephone number to another in this country -- the same information that is listed in your monthly phone bill, and which the Supreme Court has already ruled is not confidential. (It should be stressed that the calls themselves are not tapped. The government seeks only to know if one phone number is calling another a suspiciously large number of times, or on occasions that appear related to terrorist activities.)
As a final precaution, all such techniques are disclosed, in secret briefings by the Executive branch, to the leaders of both parties in both Houses of Congress, and to the chairmen and ranking opposition members of the intelligence committees of both the House and the Senate.
William Rusher is a Distinguished Fellow of the Claremont Institute for the Study of Statesmanship and Political Philosophy and author of How to Win Arguments .
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