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Liberty or security
Media General News Service


May 22, 2006

WASHINGTON - Although it depends on how the question is stated, people responding to public opinion polls usually choose security over liberty. That's the real post-9/11 thinking.

President Bush, the security president, has been doing a Bode Miller imitation, schussing haphazardly toward the bottom of the slope in these same surveys. It seems the people have gotten tired of him, but not of his eavesdropping policies.

An ABC/Washington Post survey found a substantial majority, close to two-thirds, unconcerned about news reports that the NSA had been secretly collecting long-distance phone records of tens of millions of Americans to analyze calling patterns in an effort to identify terrorism suspects.

When the story broke in USA Today, a cascade of predictions said it would undermine the nomination of Gen. Michael Hayden to head the Central Intelligence Agency. Hayden was head of the NSA when the Bush administration authorized it to use secret wiretaps without a court order to track al-Qaeda suspects in the United States and abroad.

The wiretaps and later the massive NSA program to shuffle customer calling records from private long distance carriers threw a cloud over Hayden's Senate confirmation. But the White House moved swiftly to lift the veil from some of the NSA's murky operations and let more members of Congress in on some of the wiretapping secrets.

Unfortunately, Congress isn't the issue. The issue is the courts. Hayden, with White House and Justice Department concurrence, danced around the rule of law in the name of expediting the hunt for al-Qaeda and the terrorists.

Veteran cloak-and-dagger watchers say Hayden's confirmation would have no problem if the administration had been more careful about the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act that requires approval of a judicial panel for wiretaps and telephone record disclosure.

The question before the Senate is whether his action, and those of the administration, exceeded constitutional authority and are the basis for a vote against his confirmation.

What of the public view of this matter? If the polls are an indication, Hayden doesn't seem to be in trouble and will be confirmed.

But public attitudes are malleable. Hearings could affect the course of this controversy. Besides, members of Congress are elected to do what they think is right, not what the polls say the public wants. That's especially important on constitutional matters.

Much of the public initially was defensive of the White House, or not very interested, when the Watergate scandal broke in 1972. At first, people were not concerned about reports of the Nixon administration's use of wiretaps and other gross invasions of civil liberties.

Nixon argued he had to use wiretapping to find people who were leaking national security information. Later investigation showed that Nixon was retaliating against his political enemies.

This isn't Watergate. There is no evidence of any motive in the Bush White House for the wiretaps except the hunt for terrorists. And possibly because of that, the public is not alarmed by the civil liberties transgressions. The contrary seems to be the case.

For instance, a Pew Research Center survey last March 30 found 76 percent favored a government-issued identification card for everyone. That could be a crucial development in the immigration debate if it is true.

Bush, in his immigration address to the nation last week, proposed a tamper-proof ID card - but only "for every legal foreign worker" in the United States.

He didn't explain how that would be implemented or enforced.

Most experts believe the only effective way to control immigration is a universal identification card like most advanced industrial nations have required for years. It has been controversial here and in Britain, however, because of the association with totalitarian practices of the past.

Bush's standing with the public at the moment is so weak that the White House apparently believes it cannot propose anything but a partial ID card system that won't work.


John Hall is the senior Washington correspondent of Media General News Service.
E-mail jhall(at)
Distributed to subscribers for publication by Scripps Howard News Service.

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