Putting surveillance in perspective

March 29, 2006|By HERBERT LONDON

The American Civil Liberties Union and several other organizations have brought two well-publicized lawsuits against the Bush administration on the issue of "unauthorized" domestic spying. Of course, the plaintiffs cannot demonstrate that they have been targeted by the surveillance program, and the claim that this is domestic spying is not technically accurate because only those conversations with suspected terrorists outside the United States are considered.

Plaintiffs include a gaggle of left-wingers, including the Council on American Islamic Relations, Greenpeace, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and a writer for the Nation, among others.

Their argument is that the administration is in contravention of the law because the president lost the authority to conduct warrantless surveillance domestically after the passage of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978. The administration counters with the argument that surveillance was authorized with the 2001 congressional resolution allowing for the use of force against al-Qaida.

Lost in the welter of claims and counterclaims is the context for this litigation. The war on terror has not ended, and the threat posed by the terrorists remains real and frightening.

While the president insists all measures must be taken to ensure American security, the plaintiffs seem to be asserting that the only threat is the abridgment of the law and the erosion of civil liberties. But there is the following to consider:

On the day the lawsuits were filed, March 7, Al Manar TV, Hezbollah's main vehicle in Lebanon for spreading anti-American propaganda, asked, "What structure built of gray sandstone in 1792 became a source of all oppressive decisions the world over? The answer: the White House."

In May 2004, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of the militant Shiite organization, said he is prepared for martyrdom. "Let Bush, Powell, Rumsfeld and all those tyrants in Washington hear ... there will only be room for great sacrifice, for the call to martyrdom."

The editor of the Egyptian weekly Al Arabi is quoted by the Middle East Media Research Institute as saying "anti-Americanism is like music" to his ears. He calls America "a plague" and "an ongoing crime."

George Hajjar, a professor of political science at Notre Dame University in Lebanon, said in July, "America is the New Nazism." He added, "I hope that every patriotic and Islamic Arab will participate in this war, and will shift this war not only to America, but to all corners ... wherever America may be."

Anis al-Nagash, who was involved in terrorist attacks in the 1970s and 1980s, appeared on Al Manar in August and said, "The U.S. is the enemy of Arabs and Muslims. ... Every person must resist it. ... If he can resist with weapons, it is his duty, mandated by the Quran. Any cleric with knowledge of Islam must declare jihad against the U.S., England and their allies."

In January, three would-be terrorists were arrested in Italy after vowing to launch an attack in the United States that would dwarf 9/11. Curiously, with the exception of The Philadelphia Inquirer, this story was conspicuously ignored by the U.S. press corps.

Through conversations that were wiretapped, Italian officials heard Algerian terrorists plan to kill tens of thousands of Americans. This story raises two interesting questions: Did the press ignore the story because the report would support President Bush's use of domestic surveillance? Also, doesn't this story portend the very frightening scenario that must be thwarted?

There are those in our midst who prefer legal battles against the administration because they fear a loss of civil liberties, but they do not fear, or appear not to fear, radical Islamists intent on their destruction.

Can there be any doubt that if fanatics in various corners of the globe could get their hands on nuclear weapons, they would use them?

Can there be any doubt that radical Islam is intent on causing harm to the United States, its citizens and our allies?

And can there be any doubt that a toxic poison has been set loose worldwide that could have apocalyptic repercussions if we do nothing about it?

President Bush - in fact, any future president - has an obligation to take the steps necessary to provide for national security. It is not merely sad but dangerous that many civil libertarians do not appreciate what is at stake in this global war.

If the plaintiffs' efforts in these lawsuits are successful, another weapon in the war against terror will have been rendered nugatory. Is there any wonder about who benefits from such a decision?

Herbert London, president of the Hudson Institute, is the author of "Decade of Denial." His e-mail is herb@hudson.org.

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