Preoccupation with civil liberties could end up costing us much more

December 21, 2005|By CAL THOMAS

ARLINGTON, VA. -- Iraq's huge voter turnout last week was a clear step forward for the Bush administration's policy and for a stable Iraqi government, if all sides can learn to live together. But what happened in Washington last week will undercut the war on terror and encourage those who want to reprise 9/11 on a much grander scale.

It was probably not coincidental that on the same day the Senate voted against extending the USA Patriot Act, The New York Times printed a story it had held for a year that contained numerous anonymous, and therefore unaccountable, sources claiming President Bush authorized the National Security Agency to eavesdrop on American citizens and others after 9/11. Just once it would be nice if the anonymous would leak something beneficial to their country.

In last Saturday's radio address, the president said he re-authorized the eavesdropping program more than 30 times since 9/11 and did so while consulting members of Congress. He defended his decision, because listening in on conversations of actual or possible terrorists is "crucial to our national security."

After the story appeared, the Senate failed to extend the Patriot Act, falling short of the 60-vote majority needed to overcome a filibuster led by Democrats. Some senators expressed concern about damage to civil liberties. But civil liberties mean nothing if you're killed by a terrorist who has manipulated the Constitution to achieve his or her objectives. The Senate's refusal to extend the Patriot Act increases the likelihood that more of us will die.

Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani wrote in a Times column Saturday that failure to extend the Patriot Act beyond its Dec. 31 expiration date "represents a grave potential threat to the nation's security." When another attack comes, will those senators whose concern for civil liberties trumps the saving of lives step forward?

Those relatively few who were spied on and had their cell phones monitored must have demonstrated their intention to aid in another terrorist attack on U.S. soil. Waiting for a judge to give permission to monitor a suspect's cell phone often takes too long. Before a court order can be obtained, the terrorist suspect can disconnect, or change numbers and the trail quickly grows cold.

The law - especially the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) - has lagged behind the technological innovation and cunning of our enemies. Mr. Bush did what he swore he would do in his oath of office: protect this country and its citizens from all enemies, foreign and domestic.

You can't win at the terror game when one side is preoccupied with civil liberties and charges of torture instead of victory and the other is concerned only with how many of us they can kill.

The second step back from victory came in a bill by Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican, to ban "cruel, inhumane and degrading" treatment of prisoners in American custody. One wishes our enemies would adopt such a standard, but they won't because they are more interested in winning than behaving nicely.

The major flaw in Mr. McCain's thinking is similar to what one sees in our dealings with Israel and its enemies. It is that what we do affects what the other side does and if we will be "humane" to them, they won't blow us to smithereens. That is dangerous wishful thinking and there is no evidence to support it.

Surely word has gone out to terrorists that if they are captured they have little to fear because Americans won't torture them. When information we might otherwise have obtained is not extracted from them and thousands, or millions, more of us die, will those who favor restraining interrogators be held accountable?

Jimmy Carter said he was "surprised" when Soviet President Leonid Brezhnev lied to him and invaded Afghanistan in 1979. Mr. Carter apparently forgot that communists lie.

It is that same naivete and failure to understand the threat confronting us now that produces the thinking that opposes monitoring evildoers among us. We lower our guard at a time when it needs to be raised to new levels.

Cal Thomas' syndicated column appears Wednesdays in The Sun. His e-mail is via tmseditors@tribune.com.

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