Sunday, January 01, 2006

Safire on Wiretapping

I was watching Meet the Press this morning and William Safire, the longtime New York Times columnist who was a Nixon speechwriter was on. I've rarely agreed with anything Mr. Safire had to say, but he said something that I had to agree with. Even as I agreed with what he had to say, my cynical side had something else to say.

When the topic of the Bush wiretapping came up, staunch Republican Safire had this to say:

I have a thing about wiretapping.

I was writing a speech on welfare reform [for President Nixon], and the president looks at it and says, "OK, I'll go with it, but this is not going to get covered. Leak it as far an wide as you can beforehand. Maybe we'll get something in the paper." And so I go back to my office and I get a call from a reporter, and he wants to know about foreign affairs or something, and I said, "Hey, you want a leak? I'll tell you what the president will say tomorrow about welfare reform." And he took it down and wrote a little story about it. But the FBI was illegally tapping his phone at the time, and so they hear a White House speechwriter say, "Hey, you want a leak?" And so they tapped my phone, and for six months, every home phone call I got was tapped. I didn't like that. And when it finally broke--it did me a lot of good at the time, frankly, because then I was on the right side--but it told me how easy it was to just take somebody who is not really suspected of anything for any good reason and listen to every conversation in his home--you know, my wife talking to her doctor, my--everything.

So I have this thing about personal privacy. And I think what's happening now is that the--as a result of that scandal back in the '70s, we got this electronic eavesdropping act stopping it, or requiring the president to go before this court. Now, this court's a rubber-stamp court, let's face it. They give five noes and 20,000 yeses.

But the very fact that the FBI has to do a little paperwork beforehand slows them down and makes them think for a minute. It doesn't slow them down as much as the president [Bush] has made out to believe, because there's a wrinkle in it saying that if it's a real emergency and you have to get this information, then you can get it and get the approval within 72 hours afterwards. So there's always this struggle in a war between liberty and security. Doris [Kearns-Goodwin], you go into that in your book, and Lincoln did, indeed, suspend habeas corpus, but there it is in the Constitution, "It shall not be suspended except in invasion or a rebellion," so he had the right to. He didn't have the right, I think, to close the Brooklyn Eagle or see the arrest of the leading dissident, Vanlandingham, and he made some mistakes.

But just as FDR later made a mistake with the eight saboteurs and hanged them all, and just as we made a terrible mistake with the Japanese-Americans in World War II and have apologized for that. During wartime, we have this excess of security and afterwards we apologize. And that's why I offended a lot of my conservative and hard-line friends right after September 11th when they started putting these captured combatants in jail, and said the president can't seize dictatorial power. And a lot of my friends looked at me like I was going batty. But now we see this argument over excessive security, and I'm with the critics on that.

So, Mr. Safire sees the light on wiretapping and proclaims that there is "thing about personal privacy." I've always figuratively pulled my hair out when people shrug their shoulders in the face of a loss of privacy saying that they have "nothing to hide." Whatever.

The fact is, we all have things to hide. Not necessarily criminal "things," but how many people have things that they don't want to disclosed to the public? If you are taking an anti-depressant, do you want that disclosed? Or, if you are having marital problems and you (or your spouse) are unfaithful, do you want that disclosed? If you are using Viagra, or have genital Herpes, do you want that disclosed? When one's privacy has been violated, one understands how damaging that is. The human condition is one of weakness. The right of privacy allows citizens to maintain one's dignity and save oneself from embarrassment.

Mr. Safire's own experience has taught him first hand how the government's intrusion into the privacy of its citizens without probable cause to believe that criminal activity is taking place is a violation of one of the most sacred rights -- the right to keep personal secrets. Once the government starts to monitor the communication of all of its citizens it is a short step to the control of thought and the suppression of dissent. Mr. Safire understands that, because he and his family have been violated. I can't help but think that, because he's at odds with his fellow conservatives, if he hadn't been personally subjected to wiretapping, he too would be an advocate of Bush's [illegal] wiretapping.

To paraphrase the Gospels, blessed are those who have not been violated, but still understand the importance of civil liberties.


Anonymous B Vendsel-West Fargo said...

Way to go SBG, you hit it out of the park.

10:14 PM  
Anonymous Roger said...

On one hand, I am opposed to wiretapping any US citizen's communication. On the other hand, what should we be doing to protect ourselves from future events of terrorism?

Allow me to present a scenerio that could/may have occured...A known terrorist in Germany makes a phone call (we have been monitoring all of his calls). The call begins and they begin discussing something that sounds much like the late plans of something that is going to occur in the US in the near future. It then becomes obvious that the person called is in fact in the US and is likely a US citizen. Should the NSA upon hearing this hang up? [I don't know much about how the NSA operates, however, I understand they are likely capturing huge numbers of communications electronically]

My point is that we need some mechanism that will both protect our civil liberties as well as our lives. As I understand, the NSA's current operations may go beyond what is desirable...but what can they do that will be acceptable and get the job done?

9:58 AM  
Blogger SBG said...

Your scenario introduces probable cause. The current mechanism allows for retroactive warrants. Your scenario could be effectively dealt with under the current law. Why not follow the law? It allows for security and also introduces judicial oversight to prevent abuse.

The NSA program does not protect from abuse. Where is the check? Answer? There is none. What is present in that program to stop spying on US Citizens? Only the word of the people doing the spying. I believe it was Ronald Reagan who said, "Trust but Verify."

11:09 AM  
Blogger Geoff said...

I think the greatest point SBG (showing his abilities as an attorney match his abilities as a baseball fan) hits here is that most of our problems CAN be handled under current domestic and international law.

I have read the 9/11 commission report, I spent 5 years in the Army as a counter-intelligence agency. I am almost finished with "My FBI" by Louis Freeh which I got for Christmas. In my opinion, from experience and study is that the majority if not all of the terrorist attacks we have suffered in the last 10 years are much more a result of 1- Lax or complete incompetence is following security procedures already in place and 2 - individual arrogance, personality conflicts and 'turf wars' between agencies. (I can tell you from experience that the way TV and movies portray the FBI, CIA, Military and local authorities fighting over jurisdiction is more accurate than you may want to believe)

We do not need new laws. We do not need new agencies. We certainly do not need to effect Civil Liberties (although NEVER, NEVER, EVER mistake ANYTHING I EVER say as any type of endorsement of the ACLU). What we need are qualified people in the right positions communicating with each other. Unfortunately having an "R" or a "D" displayed at the end of your name seems to be a disqualifier to doing whats right vs. doing what your party tells you to do.

Anyway as a side note, Im excited you created this new project SBG it should be fun... I have a few ideas about politics and find a lot of enjoyment talking with people who know how to disagree without being disagreeable.

12:39 PM  

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