The saga of Edward Snowden and the revelations surrounding the NSA's data-mining have realigned the political spectrum in unexpected ways. This is especially true of some conservatives, including at major right-wing publications. The Daily Caller's Theo Caldwell, who can't decide if Snowden is "Nathan Hale or Benedict Arnold," suggests "the Leader of the Free World should grant him a pardon." Patriot Act author Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-WI) is now virulently anti-NSA. Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) has introduced a bill expanding the definition of the Fourth Amendment beyond recognition. Whether they realize it or not, the conservatives who are succumbing to their own Obama Derangement Syndrome are imperiling national security in the process.
Some of these conservatives have short memories. When the New York Times published its report on the Bush administration's warrantless wiretapping program, a number of conservatives rallied to the president's side. "It strikes me as odd to say that Congress authorized the commander in chief to capture, to detain, to kill, if necessary, al-Qaeda, but we can't listen to their phone calls, and we can't gather intelligence to find out what they're doing so we can prevent future attacks against the American people," said Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX). The administration was not "going hog wild restraining American liberties," said Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL).
Six months later, when the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and the Wall Street Journal revealed the details of Bush's Terrorist Finance Tracking Program, the GOP-controlled House voted to condemn the revelation, with Peter King (R-NY) referring to the reporters as "co-conspirators with the leakers," adding that if another terror attack occurs, "the blood will be on their hands." In 2005, the Washington Post published details of a program that held terror suspects in various sites abroad, including in Jordan, where they could be interrogated more harshly than in the U.S. The leak was widely denounced.
Conservatives were right to be angry back then. In all of the above cases, the political campaign waged against these powerful counter-terrorism programs led to their dismantling. Alerting al-Qaeda to the possibility that their phone calls were being monitored and their finances being tracked, even after the nation had endured the worst domestic attack in history, could have easily been construed as giving aid and comfort to the enemy in time of war. The leaks themselves were classifiable as espionage and had enormous consequences. A week after the 2005 Post report, an al-Qaeda strike on Western hotels in Jordan killed more than 50 people. The CIA leaker in this case, Mary McCarthy, a significant Democratic Party donor, was never prosecuted, though she clearly violated espionage laws and likely precipitated the deaths of many innocent people.
In light of yesterday's revelations, it is no stretch to characterize Edward Snowden's behavior in a similar manner. In an interview with the South China Morning Post, Snowden revealed that the United States has been hacking into computers in Hong Kong and on the Chinese mainland for years. “We hack network backbones--like huge internet routers, basically--that give us access to the communications of hundreds of thousands of computers without having to hack every single one,” he said. “Last week the American government happily operated in the shadows with no respect for the consent of the governed, but no longer. Every level of society is demanding accountability and oversight.”
Snowden can coat this revelation with a patina of self-righteousness, but the fact remains that he has not only alerted the world's largest Communist nation -- allied with Iran, Syria and Russia -- to our capabilities, but every other enemy of our nation as well. As a result, everyone, including Islamic jihadists, can take effective counter-measures against such programs, putting Americans in greater danger than they were before this information was made public.
This is not a good tradeoff for the the so-called "service" done to the country by the Snowden leak, which is being greatly distorted by the remnants of the washed up anti-Iraq War movement on the Left and Obama-hating conservatives on the Right, some of whom sense political opportunity in the wind. In their fervor, they have misrepresented the facts, claiming that the government is rifling through emails and reading phone records at their discretion. They fail to mention that, as Andrew McCarthy explains, "the ongoing phone-record collection is the lawful, statutory retention component of a program with extensive civil-liberties protections. Significantly, these protections prohibit the government from inspecting the retained records without judicial approval based on a demonstration of reasonable suspicion of terrorist activity" (italics original).
To not move counter-terrorism to the realm where many terrorists operate -- the web -- would indeed be a great disservice to the country. But the key is to find balance and boundaries within the Constitution. As Charles Krauthammer explains, "everything we have can be abused .... [C]ops have guns and they can shoot, and they can shoot illegally or incompetently or crazily, but you don't abolish the police for that reason." He continues: "Countries spy on each other, we spy on others, I am glad that we do ... [I]n principle, can you abuse that? Yes. But then you have to talk about the mechanism of protecting against abuse, and that I think is a good debate. But to say, 'Well, in principle it can be abused, we shouldn't have it,' makes no sense at all."
Yet that seems to be exactly the direction many conservatives are taking. Sen. Rand Paul's (R-KY) "Fourth Amendment Restoration Act of 2013" would completely handicap law enforcement, not to mention counter-terrorism, Andrew McCarthy explains at the National Review. On the particular matter of phone records, McCarthy says that "federal courts have consistently, emphatically rejected this implausible suggestion, holding that government’s collection of phone records does not even implicate the Fourth Amendment, much less violate it."
That is not to say that concern over such government power is unwarranted -- especially if the public knows it is dealing with an untrustworthy, corrupt and incompetent government. As noted in a previous column, the Obama administration has completely squandered the trust of the public. Nothing highlights this better than Director of National Intelligence James Clapper's pathetic excuse for lying to Congress about the NSA's collection of data on millions of Americans. "I responded in what I thought was the most truthful, or least untruthful, manner by saying 'no,'" Clapper told NBC News on Sunday. "Least untruthful" is a remarkable new standard to say the least, and does little more than exacerbate the anger most Americans already feel. Like the IRS scandal, the AP and Fox News media spying scandal, Benghazi, and the Fast and Furious gun running program, the existence of an NSA surveillance program can be viewed as another piece of lawlessness perpetrated by a lawless administration.
Given the Obama administration's penchant for lawlessness, it is easy to understand the fear that Snowden's revelations engender. Yet where is the evidence, as has been produced in the IRS scandal, for example, that the NSA has violated the law? Furthermore, what is the alternative to keeping the best tabs we possibly can on those who would do us harm? Krauthammer rightly notes that a robust debate on the mechanisms of protecting Americans against abuse is a worthy endeavor, but that is about making sure the NSA functions in the most legal manner possible, not abandoning its mission altogether.
Giving us a glimpse into the importance of the metadata program, yesterday, NSA director Army Gen. Keith Alexander told a Senate panel the agency had "disrupted dozens of terrorist attacks." "I do think it's important that we get this right," he said, "and I want the American people to know that we're trying to be transparent here, protect civil liberties and privacy but also the security of this country."
Conservatives critical of the NSA metadata program -- and quite familiar with Bush Derangement Syndrome and the needless destruction of important counter-terrorism programs -- must, unlike their progressive counterparts, separate their animosity for this administration and its standard-bearer from the stark reality that the threat against America is real and ongoing. Americans deserve a government that is willing to work towards the necessary balance between protection and privacy -- but it cannot do that if conservatives join the radicals and overreach in the wrong direction.
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