Yes Virginia, We Can Have Both Liberty AND Security

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On February 26, 2006, when the war in Iraq had been raging for almost three years, when more than 2,000 of our troops had already been killed and less than a year before George W. Bush announced that he had “committed more than 20,000 additional American troops to Iraq,” the following letter appeared in NEWSWEEK:

Your comprehensive discussion of the thinking and history behind President George W. Bush’s ongoing spying “programs,” in particular the flashbacks to similar abuses of power by the Nixon and other administrations, sent chills down my spine (“Full Speed Ahead,” Jan. 9).

What riles and insults me most is the administration’s defense of this attack on Americans’ civil liberties, which comes in the form of an utterly false choice: national security vs. civil rights and liberties. This is but the latest in a series of falsehoods that started with false intelligence and false alarms to justify the attack on Iraq.

They were quickly followed by the false comparison of the war in Iraq to the war on terror. Now that we are mired in this terrible war comes the false logic that more brave Americans must die because so many have died already. I know that most Americans yearn for the quick return to an America where security and liberty are again compatible and mutually supportive goals. This cannot and will not be a false hope.

The letter was in response to a NEWSWEEK Jan. 9 cover story discussing the Bush administration’s “ambitious program of electronic spying on U.S. citizens at home and abroad.”

There were several other passionate letters, both in support of and in alarm and outrage at the administration’s actions.

One letter “applauding” George W, Bush’s policies read as follows:

I applaud the proactive nature of our president. If my neighbors or co- workers are calling or receiving international calls from Al Qaeda or other groups that want to harm us, I endorse our government’s efforts to protect us in the manner it chooses. No matter how you frame or label the policies of our president in our war against terrorists, the majority of the American public wants to see action now, not hand-wringing and blame-throwing after an incident.

Angela Hobson

Newport News, Virginia

The NEWSWEEK article and the letters were written at a time when Americans had just become aware of the torture scandals, secret prisons, “rendition” and several other nefarious actions by our government.

Also, the letters were published just a few weeks after The New York Times broke the story of the NSA’s “’special collection program’ that eavesdropped — without warrants — on about 500 Americans a day” without requesting a warrant from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC).

Eight years hence, we continue to have a healthy debate on the same issue of “national security vs. civil rights and liberties,” as mentioned by the author of the first Feb. 26 NEWSWEEK letter, above.

It may surprise some readers that the author of the letter is the same person who, today, is reluctant to flat-out condemn the NSA on the meta-data issue.

I am reluctant, partly because today’s collection of the so-called “meta-data” (phone numbers called and received, not any information about the content of those calls) and then only when “’there are facts giving rise to a reasonable, articulable suspicion’ (RAS) that a particular telephone number ‘is associated with’ a foreign terrorist organization,” is such a far cry from “eavesdropping — without warrants — on about 500 Americans a day.”

Partly because this issue deserves more debate than just throwing out uncompromising, take-no prisoner slogans such as “Give me freedom or give me death” or “We have traded liberty for security,” and definitely for more than calling those who disagree with one “cowards who gladly trade in their liberties because their afwaid (sic) of the big, bad tewwowists. (sic)”

Yes, I have somewhat flip-flopped on this issue. And, yes, I find myself somewhat ambivalent — not so cocksure of myself. But, hey, if two of the best legal and Constitutional minds in our nation — two United States District Court Judges — can intelligently and authoritatively disagree with each other on the legality and Constitutionality of this issue, I have nothing to be ashamed of.

Finally, when I read the reasoned arguments by one of the five members of the President’s Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies, I was even more reassured that this issue is not about a false choice between security and liberty, but rather about “…how the United States can better employ its foreign intelligence surveillance capabilities in a way that effectively protects our national security, while at the same time respecting our deep national commitment to privacy and civil liberties and maintaining public trust in the Intelligence Community.”

Geoffrey R. Stone, Edward H. Levi Distinguished Service Professor of Law, University of Chicago, is one of the five members. He has published three installments on his participation on this august group that has just delivered its 300 page Report (Liberty and Security in a Changing World) to the President.

His most recent column concludes with the finding: “particularly in light of the availability of other means by which the government could achieve its objectives, ‘there is no sufficient justification for allowing the government to collect and store bulk telephony meta-data. We recommend that this program should be terminated as soon as reasonably practicable.’”

In his next post, Stone will “spell out the ‘other means’ by which the government can achieve its objectives, and [he] will also address the constitutionality of the telephony meta-data program, an issue that has come to fore in recent days as a result of two sharply conflicting judicial decisions on the issue.”

Don’t miss it.

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Author: DORIAN DE WIND, Military Affairs Columnist