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The wiretaps shouldn't bug us

Author: Max Boot, Jeane J. Kirkpatrick Senior Fellow for National Security Studies
January 18, 2006
Los Angeles Times

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I can certainly understand the uproar over President Bush’s flagrant abuses of civil liberties. This is America. What right does that fascist in the White House have to imprison Michael Moore, wiretap Nancy Pelosi and blackmail Howard Dean?

Wait. You mean he hasn’t done those things? All he’s done is intercept communications between terrorists abroad and their contacts in the U.S. without a court order? Talk about defining impeachable offenses downward.

If you want to see real abuses of civil liberties, read Geoffrey R. Stone’s 2004 book “Perilous Times: Free Speech in Wartime from the Sedition Act of 1798 to the War on Terrorism.” It tells how John Adams jailed a congressman for criticizing his “continual grasp for power.” How Abraham Lincoln suspended habeas corpus and had the army arrest up to 38,000 civilians suspected of undermining the Union cause. How Woodrow Wilson imprisoned Socialist Party leader Eugene Debs for opposing U.S. entry into World War I. And how Franklin D. Roosevelt consigned 120,000 Japanese Americans to detention camps.

You can also read about how presidents from FDR to Richard Nixon used the FBI to spy on, and occasionally blackmail and harass, their political opponents. The Senate’s Church Committee in 1976 blew the whistle on decades of misconduct, including FBI investigations of such nefarious characters as Eleanor Roosevelt, William O. Douglas, Barry Goldwater and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

All you have to do is recite this litany of excess to realize the absurdity of the cries of impeachment coming from the loonier precincts of the left. Muttering about “slippery slopes” isn’t enough to convince most people that fascism is descending. If the president’s critics want that part of the nation that doesn’t read the Nation to believe that he’s a threat to our freedom, they’d better do more than turn up the level of vituperation. They’d better find some real victims—the Eugene Debses and Martin Luther Kings of the war on terror.

Civil libertarians thought they were in luck when a college student in Massachusetts claimed that two FBI agents had shown up to interview him after he had requested a copy of Mao Tse-tung’s Little Red Book. Ted Kennedy cited this incident to warn of the Patriot Act’s “chilling effect on free speech and academic freedom.” Relax, Senator. Free speech is safe. The student lied.

The anti-Bush brigade hasn’t had any luck in turning up actual instances of abuse, despite no end of effort. The ACLU compiled a list of supposed victims of the Patriot Act. After examining each case, however, Sen. Dianne Feinstein—no friend of the administration—said “it does not appear that these charges rose to the level of ‘abuse.’ ”

Which isn’t to say there haven’t been some mistakes in the war on terror. Khaled Masri, a naturalized German citizen born in Lebanon, was snatched by U.S. agents in Macedonia and interrogated about his suspected terrorist links. When no such connection was uncovered, he was released five months later, complaining of mistreatment. Or there’s Oregon lawyer Brandon Mayfield, a Muslim convert who was arrested and held for a couple of weeks because his fingerprints seemed to match those found at the Madrid bombing.

Doubtless other innocent people have been detained or had their communications intercepted. No system is perfect. But there isn’t a scintilla of evidence that these were anything but well-intentioned mistakes committed by conscientious public servants intent on stopping the next terrorist atrocity.

And although the government has occasionally blundered, it has also used its enhanced post-9/11 powers to keep us safe. The National Security Agency’s warrantless wiretaps, which have generated so much controversy, helped catch, among others, a naturalized American citizen named Iyman Faris who pleaded guilty to being part of an Al Qaeda plot to bring down the Brooklyn Bridge.

No wonder polls show that most people continue to support Bush’s handling of the war on terrorism. As long as federal surveillance remains targeted on the country’s enemies, not on the president’s, the public will continue to yawn at hyperbolic criticisms of the commander in chief.

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