Just trust us

May 12, 2006

Not to worry about the government collecting your phone records, President Bush says. National Security Agency spies aren't listening to calls or recording them.

The privacy of ordinary citizens is "fiercely protected," Mr. Bush insisted yesterday. And everything is strictly legal. "We are not mining or trolling through the personal lives of millions of innocent Americans," he said.

But what else would you call secretly amassing records of calls made from tens of millions of homes and businesses across the nation for nearly five years?

Customers of AT&T, Verizon and BellSouth can be assured any numbers they've dialed during that period - to spouses, family, friends, lovers, lawyers, doctors, employers, bookies, whatever - are all on file in a massive database the NSA is keeping in hopes of tripping across a terrorist plot.

This data collection program, first reported by USA Today, is the most egregious example yet of the blatant violations of privacy to which this government turned in its panicked response to the 9/11 attacks.

Americans who weren't bothered by earlier revelations that the NSA was eavesdropping without warrants on domestic calls overseas - figuring perhaps it didn't involve them - should reconsider. The only Americans probably not affected by this broader program are customers of Qwest, which refused to surrender its records.

The concern is not limited to whether Mr. Bush broke the law: He claims the Constitution authorizes him to do whatever he thinks necessary to protect the nation's security. What's even more alarming is a mindset that rationalizes the most intimate intrusion into innocent lives without any debate on whether the potential gain is worth the cost.

News of this massive domestic snooping also offers a troubling new perspective on Gen. Michael V. Hayden, the president's nominee for CIA director, who was running the NSA when the telephone database collection began. Facing an already difficult confirmation process, General Hayden should now withdraw from consideration for the post.

In his brief, defensive comments on the database program yesterday, Mr. Bush couldn't resist a counter-jab, complaining that every time sensitive material is leaked, it "hurts our ability to defeat this enemy."

Apparently, if he had his way, Americans would never know how their privacy is breached in the cause of national security. But that's not the way a democracy works.

"Just trust us" wasn't good enough for those who designed the American system of checks and balances. And whatever the outside threat, it's not good enough now.

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