By MARTIN SCHRAM
Scripps Howard News Service
December 27, 2005
We can ring out 2005 and ring in 2006. But we can't seem to rid ourselves of 1984.
Big Brotherism is back in the news. The specter of it surfaced in the last days of the old year and now it's slopping over into the new. It is as though we have all fallen into an Orwell and can't get out.
The Big Brother in question here is the super-secret National Security Agency, America's global stethoscope. Super-secret, that is, until Dec.16, when The New York Times reported that since shortly after 9/11, President Bush has allowed the NSA to electronically eavesdrop on conversations involving individuals inside the United States - without getting a warrant from a judge in a secret court created three decades ago for just that purpose. Yes, it revealed some security info about surveillance. But what made this a story that had to be reported was that a president was deliberately ignoring the law. So the Times reported and now the American people can decide.
But faster than you could say "George Orwell, report to rewrite!" the scoop ignited firestorms of criticism and explanation. Distortion became the weapon of choice for Bush bashers and Bush defenders (including Himself). Soon Americans were eavesdropping on a loud debate about a now-unrecognizable reality.
Our job today is to clean up the Old Year's mess by making clear what is really happening and what is not; what is unlawful and what is not; and - mainly - what is needed to keep Americans safe in the global terror age and what is not.
The controversy began with a national security need that is undeniably urgent. Shortly after al Qaeda's terrorist attacks on U.S. soil, computers and cell phones seized in raids on al Qaeda suspects overseas revealed contacts with people in the United States.
The President: Quite appropriately, President Bush sought to immediately begin eavesdropping on those al Qaeda-connected people. The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act permits him to do so instantaneously - for 48 hours while he seeks a warrant from a secret court that since the 1970s granted more than 18,000 and denied just four. But Bush ignored the law, ordering the continued surveillance in a way that, by any definition, is unwarranted.
The Critics: Republicans as well as Democrats criticized the president's disregard of the law. But many Democrats labeled it a sweeping program to spy on Americans - that goes too far. It is spying on people in America who, evidence shows, were in contact with suspected terrorists - and must be monitored. On Dec. 21, a page-one New York Times report headlined "Spying Program Snared U.S. Calls," fanned the flames while covering the fire by reporting some NSA intercepts were "purely domestic communications." Example: a foreign-based cell phone thought to be overseas was actually in America and called another U.S.-based person. Technically it was domestic and should have been an FBI snoop under existing rules.
Rethink and Reform: The globalization of economics, communications and terrorism, demands that we rethink old rules requiring the NSA to conduct only foreign snooping and the FBI only domestic. (As if the FBI never violated individual's rights!) Consider this: An al Qaeda operative in Pakistan e-mails someone in New York, who instantly forwards it to someone in Chicago. Requiring a bureaucratic handoff in mid-snoop invites a catastrophic snafu (recall the FBI's pre-9/11 bungling). Our protection comes only from requiring a secret court judge's warrant to eavesdrop. And, of course, our unshakeable trust that our leader will not lie to us.
A Guarantee President Bush Cannot Ignore: Our final word comes not from a mere pundit but from an informed source familiar with Bush's thinking: "... any time you hear the United States government talking about wiretap, it requires - a wiretap requires a court order. Nothing has changed, by the way. When we're talking about chasing down terrorists, we're talking about getting a court order before we do so. It's important for our fellow citizens to understand, when you think Patriot Act, constitutional guarantees are in place when it comes to doing what is necessary to protect our homeland, because we value the Constitution."
The source: Bush, speaking in Buffalo, on April 20, 2004 - more than two years after he had begun ordering wiretaps without a court order.
E-mail him at martin.schram(at)gmail.com