This has been a bad few weeks for the Obama administration.
The swirl surrounding DOJ's subpoena of reporters' telephone records and the IRS's targeting of groups opposed to the administration has made a lot of Americans uneasy. Some of them former supporters of the president.
I keep hoping that things are not as bad as they seem above the Rio Bravo. But yesterday morning's lead newspaper story tripped the "what are you people thinking" alarm.
"Spy agency reportedly getting Verizon records." The headline sounded rather mundane. Until you got to the meat of the story.
The National Security Agency (NSA) believes that millions of Americans are potential terrorists. That is the most benign explanation I can conjure up. Under the PATRIOT Act, NSA has collected the telephone records of millions of American Verizon customers. Not just once, but daily -- for who knows how long.
All telephone calls. Within The States. And from foreign locations calling into The States.
Mind you, there is no requirement for the Obama administration to show any basis for that request. The law allows it.
That is one reason I opposed the broad surveillance provisions of the PATRIOT Act when Congress initially passed it and recently revised it. Because I feared someone would grab the power handed to him. Someone apparently has.
This time there is no outraged president on television telling us how angry he is at the IRS. Just silence.
I want to be very clear about one thing. I strongly support surveillance based on reliable information. And I am not opposed to counterintelligence operations.
The reason airplanes have not been falling out of the skies for over the past decade has nothing to do with the comic opera TSA performance art that takes place every day in airports. That is merely an act to placate we fearful rubes. To make us believe our fellow passengers will leave their pipe bombs at home for fear of being found out by the Barney Fifes of the skyways.
Anti-terrorism works only if you can stop an operation long before it reaches its target. The FBI has been very successful at doing that.
How do we know? First, because of the series of arrests the FBI has made nipping terrorist acts in the bud.
But, there is another piece of evidence. Something that has not happened. We have not experienced suicide bombers blowing themselves up in TSA lines while we are all crowded together in perfect target formation. As happens regularly in Baghdad and Damascus these days.
The world is not a black and white place. At times, evil must be committed to prevent a greater evil. But the wide-net monitoring of million of Verizon customers steps over that line.
The fact that this trampling of constitutional search and seizure rights would not seem so bad if it had not followed immediately on DOJ's telephone record seizure designed to cow reporters and the IRS's Stalinesque enemy's list harassment of people opposed to the administration.
Any attempt to come up with a non-political motivation will simply sound hollow. Maybe that is the reason for the silence.
Is the Verizon surveillance really for national security purposes? Or is Elizabeth Goitein, of the clumsily-named Liberty and National Security Program at the Brennan Center for Justice, onto something?
"This is a truly stunning revelation. This suggests that the government has been compiling a comprehensive record of Americans' associations and possibly even their whereabouts."
So, there is the evil. And it is a big one. Americans should be outraged that their government has forgotten its place. Most Americans say they want a night watchman model of governance that protects us -- not one that acts as if it can do to the people whatever it chooses.
I am tempted to suggest that every Verizon customer should make friends around the world with all the Mustafs, Omars, and Husseins that they can find -- and call daily for chats with obvious code words. Of course, that is probably a violation of some statute on my part -- Conspiring to be Humorous on Serious Topics in the Second Degree, or some such thing.
Just a month ago, President Obama, in a commencement speech at Ohio State, declared: "[Y]ou'll hear voices that incessantly warn of
government as nothing more than some separate, sinister entity that's
the root of all our problems ... . You should
reject these voices. "
Well, Mr. President. After the people's government threatens a free press, harasses its political enemies, and starts monitoring its citizens' telephone calls, you may want to re-think those words. Because it appears that more Americans are getting paranoid.
And, as the old saying goes, it appears that someone may actually be out to get them.