January 3, 2006
Hard Lesson About Endangering Lives

By Dennis Byrne

"This is one of the most reckless and nasty things I've seen in all my years of government."

--Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), regarding an intelligence leak that has endangered national security.

The leak, Schumer said, has "undermined our national security," and if the facts are true, "it is clear that a crime has been committed."

Schumer was not alone. Other senators, including Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) and Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), lined up to demand that the Bush administration, Congress and Dick Tracy's crime stoppers ferret out the traitor and hand him over for caning. Because of this kind of leak, they warned, someone could die.

But the leak that drew their foregoing ire wasn't the one about the warrantless wiretapping of people in America who chat with Al Qaeda. It was directed at whoever disclosed the identity of CIA officer Valerie Plame, in an alleged White House conspiracy to damage the reputations of the opponents of the Iraq war. Among the many things this might tell us is that Schumer doesn't regard preventing another terrorist attack to be as important as a Plame outing.

This kind of hypocrisy and selective outrage isn't new to either party: Republicans didn't like special prosecutors, independent counsels and the like when they were probing Republican scandals, such as Watergate and Iran-contra. Some decided they liked them after all when they went after President Bill Clinton. Now they don't like them again. And vice versa for Democrats.

But one party's hypocrisy doesn't cancel another's. Any leak that breaks the law and endangers national security is grievously wrong. I said so in an October 2003 column criticizing the Bush administration for stalling an investigation of the Plame leak. But now a strange silence has overcome Democrats and much of the media. From them there are no more, as far as I can tell, passionate denunciations of this leak. No more letters to the U.S. attorney general urging an investigation; no more calls for congressional hearings; no more berating journalists for being stooges of leakers; no more allegations of criminality. The only calls to be heard from Democrats are for congressional hearings on the surveillance program, hearings that our enemies will find useful.

From this, we must assume that they are more worried about risking the life of one CIA agent than of a couple of hundred million Americans.

Among them is Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.), who put on one whale of an arm-waving portrayal of Foghorn Leghorn on the Senate floor. In a statement later, Byrd slipped out of his comic role by irresponsibly accusing President Bush of assuming "unchecked power" that is "reserved only for kings and potentates."

Other Democrats routinely refer to the surveillance as if it were randomly directed at "Americans," without mentioning that the surveillance, as far as we know, is of people who are confabbing with Al Qaeda. This crucial omission is the result of either ignorance or demagoguery.

Some in the media, in turn, routinely allow Democrats to get away with this. Or grotesquely compare wiretapping with the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. Or praise the New York Times for its wonderful "scoop," forgetting all about the thousands of stories they did casting a dark shadow on Bush for the Plame leak.

The hysteria generated by partisans and media has overcome reason, facts and the law. Never mind that John Schmidt, associate attorney general under Clinton, explained in an informative Chicago Tribune op-ed piece why Bush has the legal and constitutional authority to approve the taps. That "every president since FISA's [Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978] passage has asserted that he retained the power to go beyond the act's terms." Never mind that other legal scholars, on a non-partisan basis, have said that whatever FISA says, the president retains that power under the Constitution. That four federal appeals courts have upheld the president's power to wiretap to gain foreign intelligence--which the present case is about--without warrant.

Reputable scholars, lawyers and judges all agree that this issue is complex, with finely tuned arguments and complicated precedents on both sides. None of them is so reckless as the Byrds and media commentators who state, without reflection and with partisan purpose, that such wiretaps are illegal and unconstitutional.

Dennis Byrne is a Chicago-area writer and consultant. E-mail: dennis@dennisbyrne.net

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