Tapping freedom

by Beacon Staff • January 25, 2006

If nothing else, we should use this time to remember one of Franklin's key declarations: "They who would give up essential liberty for temporal security deserve neither liberty nor security.,This past Jan. 17, Americans marked the 300th birthday anniversary of one of our nation's all time greats, Benjamin Franklin.

If nothing else, we should use this time to remember one of Franklin's key declarations: "They who would give up essential liberty for temporal security deserve neither liberty nor security."

Like most of Franklin's writings, his words remain timely today.

The Justice Department recently outlined the legal rationale for the National Security Agency's (NSA) eavesdropping and wiretapping program, first uncovered by The New York Times in December 2005.

The 42-page defense was the Department's way of upping the ante after months of the White House defending the program in more vague terms. It also comes shortly after the first lawsuit was filed challenging the program.

Appropriately, the lawsuit, drafted by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) with plaintiffs ranging from journalists and scholars to the organization Greenpeace, was filed on Jan. 17.

The Bush administration has repeatedly stressed the necessity of domestic spying in terms of fighting the war on terror, a rationale that was dealt a blow by The New York Times in an article which revealed that most of the investigations led to dead ends and the shattered privacy of innocent Americans.

The court system will eventually decide whether the Bush administration has the constitutional authority to spy on its own citizens without warrants.

But one must wonder why they wouldn't simply get the warrants. They're notoriously easy to attain, and, furthermore, law enforcement officials are often allowed to get them up to three days after they've already begun investigating. It's almost as if the controversy is welcome.

The White House and right- wing pundits have repeatedly cited surveys which seem to indicate that Americans are either indifferent to the NSA scandal or support the President's actions.

But a closer look finds the issue is slightly more complex than that.

A Dec. 28 Rasmussen Poll, for example, found that 64 percent of Americans "believe the National Security Agency should be allowed to intercept telephone conversations between terrorism suspects in other countries and people living in the United States."

However, that question says nothing of the Bush administration's unwillingness to attain warrants.

On the other hand, a Zogby Poll from this month shows that 52 percent of Americans agree that "Congress should consider holding [Bush] accountable through impeachment" if he broke the law.

Furthermore, reaction to the scandal has not simply fallen along partisan lines. Many of the citizens most vocally opposed to the warrantless spying are not anti-war or anti-Bush by any means.

For example, one of the plaintiffs in the aforementioned ACLU lawsuit is journalist Christopher Hitchens, known for his support of Bush's War on Terror.

In his statement, he writes: "I believe the President when he says that this will be a very long war, and insofar as a mere civilian may say so, I consider myself enlisted in it.

"But this consideration in itself makes it imperative that we not take panic or emergency measures in the short term, and then permit them to become institutionalized."

The issue of warrants is a minute one in terms of how easy they are to obtain and how little they would change the way the NSA conducts its investigations.

At the same time, they are essential to the preservation of our liberties.

This is the great flaw of the Bush's presidency, and I suspect history will recognize it as such. We have a president who, on 9/11, became the leader of an entirely different country than that of his predecessors, with new threats and concerns.

The war in Iraq saw him taking decisive and principled action against a dictator where previous presidents favored complacency, and yet inept planning has resulted in many more American deaths than expected and left us with a war that we may be losing.

With the wiretapping situation, we again see a president who clearly has combating terrorism at the top of his list of priorities, where it belongs, and yet incompetence and disregard for the law have tainted the efforts.