December 22, 2005
If It's Not Abused, Wiretap Seems Wise

By Mark Davis

"We know that a two-minute phone conversation between somebody linked to al-Qaeda here and an operative overseas could lead directly to the loss of thousands of lives. To save American lives, we must be able to act fast and to detect these conversations so we can prevent new attacks."

With that scenario, President Bush hoped to use his Monday news conference to chase off the dogs of criticism as they howl at the perceived injustice of National Security Agency wiretaps conducted against individuals with perceived terrorist connections.

That surveillance was carried out without the court-approved search warrants one might associate with such scrutiny. The Bush bottom line: It is sometimes necessary to conduct such activities without a court hurdle.

Now we'll see if that reasoning flies with the public.

This issue arises at a dramatic time for Mr. Bush. After months of letting critics relentlessly flog the war, the White House has spent the last few weeks defending itself, and it appears to be working.

But just as the Bush poll numbers squeak upward, along comes a controversy that threatens not just the president's political capital but the war itself.

We can argue whether a president should have the power to unilaterally gather intelligence for national security purposes, but how did this story get into the papers in the first place?

"It was a shameful act for someone to disclose this very important program in a time of war," Mr. Bush said Monday. "The fact that we're discussing this program is helping the enemy."

And that discussion is going to last a long time. Since the horse is out of the barn, there's probably not much more damage to come from analyzing the NSA wiretaps as an objective issue.

But good luck finding that objectivity. Some Democrats are already characterizing the practice as a brazen violation of law, and some Bush supporters can be counted on to embrace it just because he did it.

So I've chosen a test for myself that you may borrow: Would I approve of this power in the hands of a president I did not vote for in a war that I did not support?

Yes, I would.

In this war, the Bush argument is that vital information may be lost by running every surveillance request through a federal judge under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

This is not a general snub of the FISA courts, just the establishment of a bar in certain limited cases where the timely need for intelligence justifies the shortcut.

Some future president might make a similar judgment call. I wouldn't want politics to interfere.

The question to ask in evaluating presidential discretion in these matters is: Do we trust him not to abuse such a secretive power?

This type of intelligence-gathering is a moral blank slate, tilted toward the good or bad by the administration doing it.

If citizens are ever scrutinized for sinister reasons, that would deserve unanimous condemnation. But if the intent is noble and a compelling case is made for its necessity, that would seem to deserve public embrace.

I doubt this would be so controversial if it had arisen, say, six months after 9-11. But four years have given us the luxury of comfort and, some would say, complacency.

We should never be so fervent about a war that we toss all cautions to the curb. But maybe there's a reason we haven't been attacked again in the last four years.

Maybe we are doing some things right. Maybe this surveillance is one of them. Are we ready to give that up without a shred of evidence that it has been abused?

Mark Davis is a columnist for the Dallas Morning News. The Mark Davis Show is heard weekdays nationwide on the ABC Radio Network. His e-mail address is mdavis@wbap.com.

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