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May 13, 2006
CQ, The NY Post, And The NSA

The New York Post has adapted my lengthy post about the NSA phone-call database into a column for today's edition titled "Sacrificing Here". I argue that both sides have a point about the program, but that the sacrifice is not only limited and reasonable for the war effort, but that it's practically been the only one we've been asked to make:

Ba[s]ically, the NSA is building a powerful tool for determining the behavior of people inside the United States (and outside, as well). Is such a tool reasonable under the circumstances we face now? That's ultimately a political question, not a legal one - and the answer depends on whether people see a greater danger in terrorists or their government.

In my opinion, the effort is reasonable and limited. The calls themselves go unmonitored, and the records contain no billing information or even names in their raw form. With the United States still in danger of terrorist attack, and with all-too-rational fears that sleeper cells still hide in our communities, this tool makes sense and provides security - at the reasonable price of some loss of privacy.

That does not make the project completely benign under any circumstances. Such data could be used for purposes other than finding terrorists - e.g., to discover a whistleblowers' contacts, or to build a smaller database on members of a political party. People could get blackmailed for their phone calls in ways that have nothing to do with national security. If the CIA or State Department (which has its own intelligence service) were running this program, rather than the NSA, many on the right would worry far more over its implications.

When we finally acknowledged that Islamist terrorists had declared war on us, President Bush warned that we'd have to make sacrifices to beat our enemy. Yet civilians haven't been asked for much in the way of sacrifice to date. Here it is: a limited loss of privacy on our telephone habits, in exchange for giving the intelligence community a tool to root out terrorist sleeper cells.

I believe that the nation needs to understand what our grandparents knew almost instinctively over sixty years ago about sacrifice while under attack. This nation has found strength through its adaptation and flexibility during national crises, and somehow we have forgotten that. Every reasonable action in the effort to find and neutralize the enemy brings with it a hysterical shriek of outrage that we have somehow put one foot on a slippery slope to totalitarianism and the other on a banana peel. Yet the nation did not collapse when our greatest President, Abraham Lincoln, suspended habeas corpus during the Civil War and jailed many of his political opponents. We did not stick with a centrally-controlled economy when we rationed strategic goods during World War II. Our nation did what was necessary to win, and once we did win, we restored the proper role of government in peacetime.

The difference is twofold: the government has not asked us for much sacrifice in this war, and the nature of this enemy makes it difficult to see our way to total victory. In the case of the former, we can only be thankful that we haven't had the need to ration gasoline, flour, copper, and the like and allow for central control of industries like automobiles and steel manufacturing. I would argue that such requests would almost certainly not fly in today's me-first atmosphere, even though in this case the enemy successfully conducted an attack on our own soil and killed thousands of Americans. We certainly have not seen any unanimity from our political class on the need to fight this enemy despite their attack on the homeland and their numerous previous attacks on American assets overseas.

For the latter, people lack the context to know how World War II or even the Civil War appeared to the people who lived through them. With the hindsight of decades, we can see the inevitability of victory in both cases. The South lacked the economic components to beat the North militarily in a prolonged war; Germany and Japan not only had that same problem but also allowed their military conquests overreach. At the time, however, no one knew that our involvement against Japan and Germany would only last four years. Our first engagement against the Nazis turned out to be a disaster in which we suffered more than half of all the casualties we have suffered today in Iraq over the last three years. In the South Pacific, we lost an Iraq or more every time we made an amphibious landing on Japanese-held territory. On Tarawa alone, the assault cost us thousands of Marines.

We had no idea then the extent of the war or the length of the sacrifice asked of the American people to fight against foreign aggressors. We do not know it now, either. In this case, the sacrifice is so light as to shame us for our lack of resolve compared to the examples of our grandparents and their grandparents. The NSA database isn't harmless, but it is reasonable for the times and the dangers we face, and we need to understand that this is what it takes to win in wartime. Be grateful that we do not need to sacrfice more.

Sphere It Digg! View blog reactions
Posted by Ed Morrissey at May 13, 2006 8:07 AM

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