The good news: The NSA doesn’t know you’re reading this. The bad news: The IRS does.
The latest Republican fashion on immigration is to declare broad support for the Senate bill while also saying that it needs stronger border-security provisions. Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, who helped write the thing, has taken this tack, and now so has Senator Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire. Senator John Cornyn of Texas has not declared his support for the bill, exactly, but has couched his proposal to amend the bill in similar terms. None of them shows any signs of being willing or able to fix the basic security defect of the bill, which is that illegal immigrants would get legal status before the security provisions are in place. None of them even acknowledges this defect. Cornyn’s amendment does nothing to touch it. Nor do any of them express the slightest concern about other questionable provisions of the bill, such as its increase in the flow of low-skilled immigrants to our country. Instead of being amended, this bill needs to be rewritten — or junked.
Interviews by House investigators confirm that the IRS scandal reaches beyond its Cincinnati office back to IRS headquarters in Washington. As reported by Johnson on page 16 of this issue, the Cincinnati agents who put the tax-exemption applications of tea-party groups through a strainer used letters developed and reviewed by the Technical Unit in the nation’s capital (the D.C.-approved letters asked tea-party groups for lists of reading materials and volunteers, and print-outs of their Facebook pages). Washington “wanted some cases,” one Cincinnati employee told the House Oversight Committee; “I had no autonomy or authority to act” without D.C. input, another testified. Three Washington-based IRS officials have retired or been kicked upstairs (in addition to former commissioner Steven Miller — resigned — and director of the Exempt Organizations division Lois Lerner — placed on administrative leave). The lower-downs are starting to look out for number one; time to use them to get to the higher-ups.
As part of the investigation, National Organization for Marriage chairman John Eastman gave some eye-opening testimony. In March 2012, NOM discovered that confidential tax forms listing its top donors had been leaked to its principal political opponent. NOM’s digital forensic analyst was able to uncover, under apparent redactions, markings that suggest that the documents were leaked from the IRS. The Treasury inspector general’s office began an investigation into NOM’s claims a year ago; since then, NOM has heard nothing and has been stonewalled in its attempts to get more information. The case is a watershed: NOM is not one of the dozens or hundreds of conservative groups whose applications for tax-exempt status led to harassment; rather, it was an already-established nonprofit singled out for a damaging attack. The scandal of a politicized IRS may be even worse than we thought.
Warren Harding famously complained that it was not his enemies but his “God-damned friends” who kept him awake nights. Yet presidents in their second terms typically cocoon themselves with friends. It’s a result of attrition in the ranks, and mental and moral exhaustion at the top. President Obama’s appointments of Susan Rice as national-security adviser and Samantha Power as ambassador to the United Nations confirm the pattern. Rice took the hit on Benghazi, losing thereby her chance to be secretary of state, so this is a consolation. Power is an old Obamaite from his first presidential campaign. Power temporarily left the team in 2008 when she called Hillary Clinton “a monster.” In 2003 she wrote that the United States should apologize for Cold War policies just as Willy Brandt had apologized for the Holocaust. Her diplomatic incompetence suits her for this administration, and her moral idiocy for the U.N.
Senator Frank Lautenberg (D., N.J.) died at the tail end of his fifth term in the Senate. In his first race, in 1982, he beat Representative Millicent Fenwick, whose “fitness” for the job he questioned on account of her 72 years; he was 89 when he passed. His vacant seat presented Governor Chris Christie, who is up for reelection this year, with a choice: tap a capable moderate Republican, such as Tom Kean Jr., who might be able to hold the seat in November even though he would be running against Newark mayor and liberal dreamboat Cory Booker; or pick some placeholder and schedule a quick special election in October, which would send Booker and Christie to the polls on different days, allowing the governor a smashing reelection free of crossover Booker supporters. Christie chose the latter course. Christie is an often-interesting renegade in a blue state; Lautenberg was a dogged hack. But both men placed a high value on winning, by whatever means.
At the end of the 2012 presidential campaign, Christie angered some of his fellow Republicans, who thought he was too chummy with President Obama. This was in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. Recently on CNBC, Larry Kudlow asked Mitt Romney whether he harbored any ill will toward Christie. None, said Romney. “He helped me during my campaign immeasurably, raised money, got endorsements, went out on the trail, and he did what he thought was best for the people of New Jersey. That’s why he’s so popular there.” How about Christie and Obama, bonding in New Jersey? “A governor is going to welcome in the president, and he welcomed in the president. Let’s not worry about that.” The sheer class of Mitt Romney — and that has nothing to do with money — would have been welcome in the White House.
Because President Obama made John Kerry secretary of state, Massachusetts needs a new senator. There will be an election on June 25. The Democratic nominee is Ed Markey, a House lifer and a classic Massachusetts liberal. He is almost out of a parody. The Republican nominee is Gabriel Gomez, a businessman and former Navy SEAL. Gomez is not an NR conservative (such a creature would have a very hard time winning a Senate seat in Massachusetts). But he would be infinitely better than Markey, for a country sorely in need of better officeholders. Right-leaning people should do all they can to elect him.
Michele Bachmann is a conservative spark plug and spitfire. She has represented the sixth district of Minnesota for four terms; she has announced she will not seek reelection in 2014. After her announcement, the leading Democratic contender for the seat bowed out too: It is a safely Republican district made competitive only by the controversy surrounding her — controversy she brought on in good ways and bad. (A low point was her baseless claim, while running for president, that the HPV vaccine could cause retardation.) Still, she had a talent for cutting to the heart of matters, as when she said that we should “legalize American energy.” Still in her mid 50s, Bachmann has plenty of time for another act or two. She and her husband have five children, and before she ran for office they served as foster parents to 23 more. Michele Bachmann did more good before she entered politics than most people ever do.
Some years ago, Representative Charlie Rangel said that tax cuts were racist — or rather, that tax-cutters were. The way he put it was, “It’s not ‘spic’ or ‘nigger’ anymore. They say, ‘Let’s cut taxes.’” In more recent days, Martin Bashir, an MSNBC host, said that “IRS” was the new “N-word.” “Three letters that sound so innocent, but we know what you mean.” Maybe we could agree that everything is racist, including “and” and “the,” and be done with it?
In 2004, NR earnestly pled with the Democrats to nominate Howard Dean for president. Showing a dismaying lack of loyalty, Dean repaid this favor recently by saying on television, “The National Review is just silly. Who’s going to take them seriously?” We had made him unhappy by criticizing him for minimizing the Benghazi scandal. He went on to say, in reference to the administration’s investigations of reporters, “I like to stick it to the press because they’re so thin-skinned and sanctimonious.” It’s mutual, Howard.
E Pluribus Tyranny
‘If people can’t trust not only the executive branch but also don’t trust Congress, and don’t trust federal judges, to make sure that we’re abiding by the Constitution with due process and rule of law, then we’re going to have some problems here.”
Thus Barack Obama defended the NSA’s data-mining operation. And, of course, he has a point. Under President Bush — now more popular than President Obama, which is entirely irrelevant but fun to point out — the controversy about similar programs was that they were “warrantless” or even “rogue.” Now all three branches of government have bought in (or been co-opted), which in a democracy should, and does, count for something.
But it’s also worth remembering that it’s precisely when all three branches of government — or both political parties — rally around a policy that the country is most likely to go off the rails. The best the Founders could promise about the checks and balances inherent to the Constitution was that they would make tyranny less likely, not that they would make it impossible.
Just ask Robert Goldstein. He was the filmmaker behind The Spirit of ’76, an over-the-top, big-budget movie (by 1917 standards) about the American Revolution. It should have been a huge hit. Inspired by the success of Woodrow Wilson’s favorite film, Birth of a Nation, Goldstein hoped The Spirit of ’76 would inspire the whole country. Alas, his timing was miserable. America was going to war, and Congress had just passed the Espionage Act (the same law Eric Holder used to target Fox News’s James Rosen). Authorities were outraged that Goldstein had cast the British — our allies in the war to end all wars — in such a negative light, especially since there was already strong anti-British sentiment among Americans of German and Irish descent. At the behest of the Department of Justice, Lucullus Cicero Funkhouser, the head of the Chicago Police Censorship Board (and contender for best name ever), confiscated the film. Goldstein agreed to edit out some offending material, including a scene where King George III punches Ben Franklin in the face.
But when Goldstein debuted the film in Los Angeles, to positive reviews from the Los Angeles Times, the authorities prosecuted him under Section 3 of the Espionage Act, which bars the discouragement of military recruiting. A Wilson-appointed judge, perhaps holding a grudge because his name was Benjamin Franklin Bledsoe, sentenced him to ten years in prison. The verdict was upheld on appeal, though Goldstein spent “only” three years in prison before Wilson commuted the sentence when the war was over.
What’s the point? Well, the Espionage Act was passed on a bipartisan basis at the urging of the president (in his State of the Union address, he begged for the power to “crush” domestic enemies) and upheld by the courts. When you think about it, American history is full of examples of all three branches of government — and both parties — coming together to do ill-advised or tyrannical things. Slavery, of course, comes to mind, as does the internment of Japanese Americans. But so does the jailing of Jacob Maged — the man who charged 35 cents to press a suit when the New Deal codes said he had to charge 40 cents (that story will undoubtedly resonate more as Obamacare unfolds). Whatever you make of the McCarthy era, it’s always worth remembering how bipartisan many of its excesses were.
Now, I don’t necessarily think the NSA story will join this list of acknowledged government mistakes, but if it doesn’t, it won’t be because so many branches of government signed off on it.
There’s a larger point here. President Obama has spent his entire presidency hectoring, cajoling, and imploring Americans to trust government. (Proving yet again that God has a sense of humor, shortly before the IRS, DOJ, and NSA controversies erupted, the president mocked those who warn that tyranny might be around the corner.) More important, he has insisted time and again that what the country needs most is unity. If only we all work together, if only we all follow his lead, if only we all march in step, there’s nothing government can’t do!
As the Founders would be the first to acknowledge, the greater the unity, the more likely tyranny becomes. It’s not an iron rule, of course. Sometimes unity is necessary to fight tyranny. But in our system, unity is absolutely necessary to impose it as well.
Back in March, during a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing, Senator Ron Wyden asked the director of national intelligence, James Clapper, “Does the NSA collect any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?” Without so much as pausing, Clapper responded, “No, sir,” adding that at least it did not do so “wittingly.” It turns out that the NSA has in truth been collecting data about the telephone use of millions or hundreds of millions of Americans. Nor was Clapper taken off guard by the question: Wyden says he told him in advance that he would ask it. Caught in the untruth, Clapper struggled to keep his story straight. First, he claimed that “what I said was, ‘the NSA does not voyeuristically pore through U.S. citizens’ e-mails.’ I stand by that.” When this proved unconvincing, he told Andrea Mitchell bluntly that he had responded in the “least untruthful manner” available. In an area where trust is essential, Clapper has deceived the public, and quite wittingly.
The College Republican National Committee has issued a report on the youth vote, based on extensive surveys and focus groups with the under-30 set that delivered the election to President Obama. A major challenge, the report confirms, is simply reaching Millennials with the small-government message, making it past their Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert information sentries. Other news is better. Majorities of Millennials oppose abortion in most circumstances and favor stricter border control, for instance. And though they find President Obama more credible than his opponents on their immediate economic concerns (jobs and education debt), they don’t necessarily think he has succeeded in addressing them, and they remain worried about the future of the welfare state. To reach them, though, Republicans will have to do more than just wait for them to grow older and wiser.
The IRS scandal has some Republican politicians talking about “abolishing the IRS.” Conservatives should demand specifics before applauding. A large federal bureaucracy would be necessary to enforce even a pure flat tax or a national sales tax. Either reform would be compatible with the favoritism and abuse that the IRS has shown — unless Congress were to declare that no organizations, not even churches, would be exempt from the reformed tax system. Extracting enough resources from our economy to fund a government of the current size will inevitably be intrusive, and airy promises about getting rid of the IRS do nothing to shrink it.
Governors and attorneys general across the country should stand with Oklahoma attorney general Scott Pruitt, who has found an ingenious way to call a halt to the Obamacare project: hold the federal government to the letter of that misbegotten law. Oklahoma is standing largely alone today as it challenges the administration’s plans to use the IRS to collect taxes that it has not been authorized by law to collect. The Obamacare law specifies that certain subsidies may be given, and certain punitive taxes collected, only when states have established health-insurance exchanges. Most states have refused to establish those exchanges, an unforeseen development, and so the administration has announced that it plans to have the IRS proceed as though the states had done so. Pruitt’s case is legally compelling and politically attractive: States have nothing to lose by protecting their residents and their residents’ employers from punitive taxation under Obamacare. The 29 other Republican governors should take note.
Arizona governor Jan Brewer’s eagerness to help the Obama administration expand Medicaid has gone from unwise to unseemly: She is threatening to veto all bills until the legislature satisfies her. She is calling her gambit a “moratorium” on legislation, and she already has vetoed five bills unrelated to Medicaid. This is conduct unbecoming of a chief executive. The expansion of Medicaid is in itself unwise: It is a bad program that provides few benefits to the poor and imposes great costs, two defects that ought to be of concern to a Republican governor. But there is a larger point that the governor fails to appreciate: We have multiple branches of government and divided powers for a reason; she is the governor of Arizona, not its viceroy. Executives are entrusted with veto power to ensure that defective bills do not become law, not to hold the entire legislative process hostage until they get their way. Stumping for Obama’s Medicaid agenda is bad enough, but flamboyantly abusing her executive powers while doing so places Governor Brewer in a special class.
After years of treating the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals with a casual indifference, President Obama suddenly announced three nominees to it — and urged the Senate to approve them quickly. The president’s newfound interest in the D.C. circuit is puzzling, considering he waited nearly two years after taking office to make any nomination to the court whatever. And the urgency he now says is required to fill these vacancies is belied at turns by the facts (the most recent vacancy is barely three months old) and his own past behavior (the oldest vacancy is so old that Senator Obama availed himself of the opportunity to block President Bush’s nominee to fill it). So what is motivating the White House? As Doug Kendall, leftist legal advocate and president of the opaquely named Constitutional Accountability Center, put it: “With legislative priorities gridlocked in Congress, the president’s best hope for advancing his agenda is through executive action, and that runs through the D.C. circuit.” The good news is that there is plenty of room for the Senate to honorably discharge its constitutional duty to advise and consent on judicial nominees, while at the same time cooling the president’s ambitions.
Congress held hearings on the problem of sexual assault in the military, and Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D., N.Y.) is saying that the decision whether to bring cases to military courts should be taken away from commanders and given to JAG lawyers. Yet the evidence that the system is failing is weak. Claims that the military is rife with abuse and cover-ups rely on reports of the incidence of “unwanted contact,” a vague catch-all term. It is not clear that abuse is more common in the military than in other places with large numbers of young men and women (and, frequently, alcohol), such as college campuses. One step that would improve the military’s handling of these cases would be to build up a specialized corps of sex-abuse prosecutors rather than relying on the military’s usual rotation of lawyers in and out of the field. Unlike Gillibrand’s idea, that wouldn’t weaken the command structure.
The Supreme Court ruled that police may take a DNA sample from anyone they have arrested. The usual opponents are making the usual overheated cries of “Police state!” — just as The New Republic did in 1936, when Berkeley, Calif., instituted a fingerprinting program and TNR’s editors wrote: “There seems no doubt that the instigators of the Berkeley fingerprinting jamboree are in fact people with strong fascist leanings.” In fact, taking a DNA cheek swab is a trivial inconvenience — much less bothersome than handcuffing — that can pay off greatly in tracking arrestees and tying them to other crimes. The Maryland legislature weighed the pros and cons and decided to allow police to take a DNA sample while also placing restrictions on the practice. It was a reasonable decision, as was the Court’s deferring to it.
The Obama administration has capitulated in its legal battle to preserve some restrictions on Plan B and similar emergency contraceptive drugs against a U.S. district judge’s mandate that they all be dropped. The drugs are currently available to girls under age 17 only by prescription. In 2011, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius overruled an advisory panel’s recommendation that the drugs be sold over the counter in pharmacies to women and girls of all ages, and, in a statement endorsing her decision at the time, the president expressed his discomfort with the idea of adolescent girls’ being able to purchase Plan B in drug stores “alongside bubble gum or batteries.” Judge Edward Korman took it upon himself to overrule the secretary, declaring that she had bowed to “political pressure.” Now the executive branch has bowed to Korman.
Sarah Murnaghan is a ten-year-old girl with cystic fibrosis, a genetic disease that will soon end her life if she doesn’t receive a lung transplant. But within the federal government’s transplant network, children under twelve are eligible for lungs only from other children, and not from the much larger adult list. So her family, as any would, has fought to have the federal government make an exception for Sarah, winning the support of some members of Congress and drawing a response from HHS secretary Kathleen Sebelius. She has adamantly refused to make an exception, but has agreed to review the policy (as HHS has done for other organs). Organ transplants are basically a zero-sum game, making tragic trade-offs necessary, but those trade-offs should not be made by political appointees responding to pressure. On this rare occasion when Sebelius has rejected political meddling with health care, she should not be criticized.
“U.S. Women on the Rise as Family Breadwinner” was the headline under which the New York Times reported the results of a Pew Research Center analysis finding that women are the primary earners in 40 percent of households with children under 18. But the story turns out not to be about the triumph of the high-earning career woman, but about the disappearance of fathers: Nearly two-thirds of these “breadwinner moms” are single, and they have little in common with their married counterparts. Unmarried mothers — and increasingly that means never-married mothers — are younger, much poorer, and less educated than married mothers. Women may be “on the rise” as breadwinners, but that seems to be mostly because marriage is on the decline.
Richard Windsor, an employee of the Environmental Protection Agency, took the Obama administration’s famed devotion to transparency to new heights by not existing. “Windsor” is the e-mail alias that former EPA administrator Lisa Jackson used to correspond with environmental activists and senior Obama-administration officials, among others. Windsor, as it turns out, was an employee of significant achievement. Documents released by the agency to the Competitive Enterprise Institute’s Chris Horner reveal that, for three years running, the EPA has honored him as a “scholar of ethical behavior,” presenting him with Latinate certificates recognizing him as a “scholasticus decentia.” The nonexistent Windsor has also helped to keep terrorists at bay, earning certifications in cyber-security awareness and a counterterror initiative that urges federal employees to report suspicious activity to law-enforcement authorities. Both Jackson and the EPA call her use of the alias e-mail address “standard practice,” merely a means of managing e-mail traffic. Perhaps in the Obama administration. At the very least, the agency has a sense of irony: It also awarded Windsor a certification in e-mail-records management.
Congress has mandated that expenses associated with a Freedom of Information Act request should be waived for groups that use the information to educate the public about government functions. The Competitive Enterprise Institute reviewed 1,200 pages of EPA correspondence and found that 92 percent of liberal groups’ fee-waiver requests were approved while 73 percent of conservative groups’ requests were denied. Furthermore, several right-leaning organizations told National Review that even when they do receive public information from the EPA, it often arrives late and heavily redacted. The EPA responded to these allegations, albeit misleadingly, noting that many conservative groups eventually got their fees waived, too. But the agency didn’t mention that it yielded, in some instances, only after conservatives brought suit, forcing it to follow the law. The EPA appears to be one of those organisms that prefer the darkness.
Turkey has blown up in the face of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, its prime minister. In office these past ten years, he’s been moving the country away from its quite special secular democracy and marching it toward Islamism. Ever-increasing authoritarianism has earned him the nickname of “The Caliph.” On trumped-up charges, he has purged the army, the judiciary, and the media: More journalists and senior members of the armed forces are in prison in Turkey than anywhere else in the world. Having initially supported the Assad regime in Syria, he is now itching to go to war against it. Restrictions in the name of Islam on alcohol and women’s rights are unpopular. His recent proposal to abandon parliamentary rule in favor of presidential rule seems intended to make him a real caliph. The announcement that a park in central Istanbul is to be redeveloped into a shopping mall, a mosque, and a barracks led to a small, peaceful protest. Whether out of arrogance or insecurity, Erdogan sent in the police, called the protesters looters, extremists, and possible foreign agents, and himself left on an official tour to North Africa. Riots in some 70 towns and cities immediately brought to a head the various resentments and fears that Erdogan has provoked. Three people have been killed, 5,000 injured, and nearly 1,000 arrested. What’s different from other upheavals in the Muslim Middle East is that those injured and arrested aren’t trying to introduce democracy against the odds but defending an already democratic state, also against the odds.
On a recent trip to Russia, reporters asked Republican congressmen Dana Rohrabacher of California and Steve King of Iowa what they thought of the jailing of Pussy Riot, the aesthetically dubious but politically audacious punk band sentenced to two years in prison for a minute-long protest staged inside a Moscow cathedral. As it turns out, neither showed signs of having thought about the affair at all. Congressman King, in particular, said he found it “hard to find sympathy for” the group, considering their “desecration” of the church. But Pussy Riot were not imprisoned for vandalism of either the physical or the spiritual variety. They were imprisoned for “hooliganism,” a vague czarist-era infraction that the state used as a pretext to disappear its political enemies. We have long been admirers of both congressmen, but we wish they had been better ambassadors for American principles.
After being banned for a century, garden gnomes were finally permitted at this year’s posh Chelsea Flower Show. The decision is significant, because every news article on the garish figurines seems to describe them as “naff” (i.e., not even close to posh); when translated into American terms, they would appear to fall somewhere between pink flamingos and lawn jockeys. But a recent set of Ikea commercials that showed garden gnomes being destroyed in various ways inspired what one newspaper called a “furious backlash”; they might as well have strangled teddy bears, as the bleak Scandinavian anomie was lost on phlegmatic Britons. A gnome manufacturer boasts that since 2008, “demand has just grown consistently year on year,” and in the wake of Ikea’s ill-advised campaign, gnome sales at one garden chain more than doubled. Meanwhile, crowds of visitors throng the Gnome Reserve in Devon.
“Is cursive dead?” When the New York Times put this question to four debaters in late April, two — an education professor and a handwriting expert — proclaimed that cursive, if it was not dead already, should be allowed to die. The third, an occupational therapist, asserted that cursive should be taught, but with an emphasis on “simplicity and function.” Only one, an archivist, made the case that cursive handwriting is a tradition worth preserving, for its artistry and for its use in historical documents. North Carolina, it seems, did not get the memo from cursive’s undertakers. House Bill 146, nicknamed the “Back to Basics” bill, was given final approval by the N.C. state senate in late May. It requires public elementary schools to instruct students in cursive writing so that kids can “create readable documents through legible cursive handwriting by the end of fifth grade.” While the handwriting expert interviewed by the Times argued that “mandating cursive to preserve handwriting resembles mandating stovepipe hats and crinolines to preserve the art of tailoring,” it appears that some Americans are not ready to cast off craftsmanship for the plainness and uniformity of the machine age.
Rachel Abrams was a writer and artist. She was the wife of Elliott Abrams, the daughter of Norman Podhoretz and Midge Decter, the sister of, among others, John Podhoretz, and the mother of three children. Her view of the world was sharp and clear. She had an especially keen understanding of two countries, America and Israel. She knew what it takes to keep a country free — and, in the case of Israel, extant. She wrote with glorious abandon in her blog Bad Rachel. This lady was nothing but good. She has died at 62. R.I.P.
Father Andrew Greeley, priest, pundit, sociologist, and low-end novelist, appeared on a talk show years ago with Zsa Zsa Gabor. Said she: “I sink priests should hear confession, say Mess, and not write feelthy books.” His novels were titillations, in the genre of Cath-porn; they made him a fortune, much of which he passed on to charity. His sociology and his punditry — the two were joined at the hip — were most reliably in the service of intra-Catholic contumacy. Sometimes his points were questionable — most Catholics use the pill, so the Church should agree with most Catholics. Sometimes they were right on target, as when Greeley flayed the hierarchy for hushing up child-abuse scandals. There were other occasions, though, when Greeley sided with his church against critics and cultured despisers: when he defended Catholic schools; when he argued that secularization was not an inevitable consequence of modernization. Dead at 85. R.I.P.
Jean Stapleton had the long c.v. of a career actress, but she made her mark as Edith Bunker, wife of Carroll O’Connor’s Archie, in the Seventies sitcom All in the Family. The show was a hymn of hate directed against conservatives, depicted in the person of Archie Bunker as tempestuous, ignorant bigots (Edith was as benighted as her husband, but the decency that accrued to her as a repressed woman was allowed to shine through). And yet the skill of her and O’Connor’s characterizations made the show a hit. Stapleton believed the premise of the show; so did liberals in the Seventies; so do liberals in the Teens (the laughter of liberals often conforms to Henri Bergson’s definition: a human bark). Dead at 90. R.I.P.
Looking Out, Looking In
A series of leaks revealed that the government’s conduct of the war on terrorism has involved surveillance of communications more extensive than had been previously suspected. The government has for years collected information about phone calls to and from Verizon customers: what phone numbers they called and were called from, when, and for how long they talked. It is widely assumed that other phone companies are also handing over their information. The government has also operated a program, called PRISM, that monitors networks such as Facebook and attempts to zero in on suspicious behavior by foreigners.
Edward Snowden, an employee of a federal contractor, has taken credit for the leaks and fled to China. It is a dubious perch from which to speak on behalf of transparent government and free speech, and his statements have been tinged with grandiosity and paranoia. (He suggested that journalists who worked with him might be killed and that the U.S. government might pay Chinese gangsters to kill him. No fatalities have yet been reported.) It is a mark against federal surveillance programs that they placed a person of such questionable judgment in a position of power.
The programs themselves appear to be compatible with the Constitution, and to offer potential help in preventing terrorist atrocities. Yet they also raise questions. PRISM reportedly allows people to be targeted for further scrutiny when the data suggest there is a 51 percent chance that they are foreigners, which seems like a very low threshold. The information being handed over by Verizon (and probably other phone companies) may seem to be limited, since it does not include the content of conversations, but modern technology allows a lot of inferences to be drawn from that information.
The phone surveillance has also taken place at a level of secrecy that is hard to justify. Telling the public that the “envelope” information for all phone calls was being tracked would not have tipped off any terrorist that he was being watched, precisely because the program casts a wide net; nor would it have divulged operational details about the program. And the program is authorized under what appears to be a very expansive interpretation of a provision of the PATRIOT Act. We do not know for sure what that interpretation is, since the surveillance-court decision that cleared the program is itself secret.
The PRISM leak, on the other hand, may have compromised the program by informing terrorists about the vulnerability of some of the networks they use. The government will be entirely in the right if it prosecutes this leak.
Libertarian-minded Republicans should resist the temptation to speak ominously of Big Brother or hyperbolize to the effect that the feds are listening to everyone’s phone calls. What is needed here instead is oversight and open debate to make sure the right protections are in place: from deadly terrorists, from overweening government, and from irresponsible leakers.