This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: It is said that imitation is the most sincere form of flattery. If that adage is true, George W. Bush should be feeling rather smug at the moment.
The former president was pilloried by civil libertarians for some of the alacritous executive actions he took to protect the nation in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. He popularized the once arcane term “enemy combatant,” established his own concentration camp at a naval base in Cuba (a.k.a. Gitmo) and authorized “extraordinary rendition” (a.k.a. sending people to countries where they are likely to be tortured) in limited circumstances, though that practice was also terminated on his watch. He championed passage of the Patriot Act and made generous use of the expanded surveillance powers it granted him.
Mr. Bush was succeeded in office by his ideological antithesis, Barack Obama, who pledged to rein in these excesses and restore the traditional restraint of the American rule of law to executive authority. Five years into his administration, we find Mr. Obama operating his own drone-assassination program while monitoring telephone and internet traffic here and abroad.
Two explanations for this phenomenon suggest themselves. The first is Lord Acton’s pessimistic observation about absolute power.
“Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.
Great men are almost always bad men.” –Lord Acton
Under this interpretation, the office rules the man, and he will thus be dragged inevitably into corruption regardless of his otherwise benign intentions.
The second, less sinister, explanation is that such actions were necessary. Proponents of this perspective recognize that the successive chief executives harbored profound philosophical differences, but understand both men were intent to preserve the union and shelter its citizens and subsequently did what they had to under the circumstances.
Which school of thought you subscribe to will determine your position on the present controversy concerning revelations of widespread governmental snooping into previously private communications. In this case, reality has made for some strange bedfellows.
Many reliably hostile Republican critics have come to Mr. Obama’s defense on matters of national security. This leads me to conclude that his tactics cannot be dismissed as feckless abuses of the public trust. These are the same guys, after all, who seem to think that affordable health care is a grave peril to personal liberty. If they’re on board with the program, the need must be genuine. On the other hand, privacy advocates raise legitimate concerns about just what kind of totalitarian hell all this might lead us to.
The word “privacy” appears nowhere in the Bill of Rights. Rather, the concept is inferred, most specifically from the passage of the Fourth Amendment that guarantees “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable search and seizure…”
Obviously, the difficult word here is “unreasonable” because what is reasonable under one set of circumstances can be unreasonable under another. As I’ve mentioned in other writings, if you throw your mother-in-law out the window, you’ll normally go to jail — unless, of course, the house is on fire, in which case you’ll be lauded for your actions. The exigent circumstances of the defenestration thus determine whether you’re a heel or hero.
In the 1967 case Katz v. the United States, the Supreme Court ruled that citizens enjoyed “a reasonable expectation of privacy” when engaged in electronic communication. Now comes word that the NSA tracks every phone call you make, every website you visit, along with your credit and debit card transactions, just in case…
The rationale for this massive intrusion on personal autonomy is anti-terrorism: The daily inconveniences we endure and the minor humiliations we suffer are the costs we share for the collective benefit of domestic security. If privacy must be compromised in the process, so be it because the alternative is truly horrific.
This argument might have been easier to swallow had we not met the custodians of our purloined information. The source of the breach in the Wikileaks scandal was a then 22-year old enlisted man, PFC Bradley Manning. The whistler-blower in the data-mining revelations was the fortuitously named Edward Snowden, a 29-year-old technician who reportedly failed to finish high school. He was employed by an independent contractor used by intelligence services.
Devotees of the novel Catch-22 will remember the character Snowden as the mortally wounded airmen who quite literally spilled his guts across the floor of Yossarian’s aircraft, thereby permanently altering the protagonist’s view of the war effort. When the present Snowden spilled his guts in a slightly less dramatic fashion, he precipitated a firestorm of public debate.
Think about THE GOVERNMENT collecting secret data and the mind conjures images of tight-lipped professionals quietly performing critical duties. When you actually meet THE GOVERNMENT performing this task, you’re introduced to a Private First-Class and a high school dropout. These are the people who can monitor your bank account?
Along with guardians possessed of dubious credentials, our anti-terrorism efforts are flawed by a serious lack of focus. Although it is generally understood that the most significant domestic and international threats are posed by young Muslim males, our democratic impulses and attendant concerns for political correctness preclude targeting that obvious demographic. As a result, everyone’s privacy is infringed upon in the interest of fair play; and intelligence agencies are consequently swamped by a deluge of useless information. And this willful blindness of the whole forces ordinary citizens to place an equally blind faith in those who purport to protect them.
That said, the fact that two ideologically divergent administrations have pursued essentially the same path to secure the nation with a relative degree of success would seem to indicate that something we’re doing must be working.
Most literate people are familiar with the first line of the Lord Acton quote that accompanies this column. The second line is less well remembered and may, in fact, be mistaken. Perhaps it is not the great men who are almost always bad, but rather the world they have to deal with that is.