So the morning papers are full of talk about the administration’s massive sweeping up and mining of communications data of all forms in the US. The New York Times editorializes today that the Obama White House has “lost all credibility” on questions of domestic surveillance. And the surveillance program does look might broad. Who called whom on the phone; who emailed whom on the Internet: You communicated it, they got it. But what to make of it?
My answer is, what did we expect?
There are, of course, urgent reasons for wanting to mine data on the traffic flow of the nations wires and airways. We are told that these programs have stopped numerous terror attacks, which is no doubt true. We are not told the seriousness of these thwarted conspiracies, but the Boston attack may have ranked at the lower level of lethal plots.
The would-be dirty bomber picked up in Chicago in mid-2002 surely hoped to kill more people than the 2001 attackers had and leave at least a section of a major city uninhabitable. That’s what dirty bombs are designed to do. Even more frightening at that time was the fear of a suitcase-sized nuclear device. Some were speculating about the prospect of losing an entire U.S. city and all its people. None of this actually happened. Maybe all the eavesdropping and telecom tracking played a role. We don’t know.
What we do know is that after the briefings the president received upon assuming office, his views turned. Those presentations were frightening enough to lead the newly elected chief executive to drop at least part of his anti-anti-war-on-terror ideology. As we know now, on matters of domestic surveillance, he was soon outdoing his predecessor.
But the danger in all of this anti-terror traffic tracking is that, through too much zeal or too few scruples, what started with good intentions could soon be breaking bad.
I generally supported the national security stance of George W. Bush’s administration. But the former president and his colleagues showed insufficient appreciation for the danger – actually the likelihood — that those who followed them would misuse the powers they had assumed to meet the emergency.
The same can be said about liberals of past decades. They brushed aside conservative warnings about the ever-increasing power that their domestic policies bestowed on their ever-expanding state. The liberals of the 1950s through the 1980s saw no contradiction between the American Constitution’s commitment “to secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity” and the social democratic state they nurtured. We could have it all, they assured us. Now a new kind of liberal is giving life to those earlier conservative fears.
Today we have a radical left administration that tramples separation of powers and reaches for government by decree. How is stretching the meaning of the Patriot Act far beyond all conceivable Congressional intent different from what Mr. Obama has done with, for example, the clean air laws, stretching them to encompass greenhouse gases, an interpretation Congress has repeatedly and explicitly rejected?
And if we have reached the point at which such discrete and carefully drafted legislation can open wide the doors of abuse, what about the vast, loose drafting acts that have become the administration’s signature – Dodd-Frank and, of course, Obamacare?
What I am saying is that you can’t have an ever expanding government with ever more arbitrary powers and not eventually have IRS and AP-type scandals, both signs of officials using the powers of government to their utmost, sweeping away all customary and, in cases, explicit restraints.
If liberals like the editorial writers of The New York Times wish to limit government in one sector, are they ready to limit it in the others? If not, they may believe they are taking civil liberties seriously, but they aren’t.