As Congress and the White House pasted together and passed the so-called Patriot Act in the aftermath of the 2001 attack on the New York World Trade Center, a few conservatives raised questions about the degree to which the nation seemed ready “to trade liberty for security.” Those questions fell on deaf ears as leaders of both parties concluded that a level of government intrusion and “more flexible” interpretations of the Constitution’s civil liberties protections were in order.
Those of us who questioned the wisdom of giving those charged with protecting us all the power they requested and thought might be useful were told the world had changed, and we were going to have to accommodate the new reality. These new investigative powers would, after all, make protecting us “easier” and to even question the legitimacy of the need for them was viewed as a denial of the reality in which we found ourselves. Some of us were even accused of working actively to weaken the nation we love in the face of implacable enemies, and others were dismissed as cranks that just didn’t get it.
In the midst of all this, my friend and fellow conservative Paul Weyrich was visited by representatives of the Bush Justice Department to see if they could get him to stop complaining about provisions of the Patriot Act he thought were dangerous and to go along with the administration’s push for more and more power. Paul called me after they left his office and said that their argument boiled down to the fact that while the powers President Bush was seeking were indeed unprecedented, we had to recognize that their motives were good. They were, after all, the good guys and were only seeking these new powers to “protect” us from our enemies.
Paul argued that even if he accepted for the sake of argument that they were, in fact, the good guys, he couldn’t help worrying about what would happen when the less pure of heart had access to these powers in the future. I told Paul that we should be just as worried about too much power in the hands of good guys, bad guys, Republicans, Democrats or vegetarians. The Founders devised the safeguards in our Constitution not to protect us from bad guys, but because human beings simply aren’t angels who can be trusted with power over their fellow citizens.
The Founders knew this from their study of history, personal experience and an almost genetic appreciation of the truth of Lord Acton’s warning that power corrupts. They did their level best to provide this nation with a governmental framework that would give those in charge the power they would need, without providing them with all the power they want.
I was reminded of this exchange the other day when an author and one of the strongest backers of the Patriot Act, Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., reacted angrily to the news that the Obama administration has been secretly monitoring, compiling and analyzing phone records from literally millions of Verizon customers and other cellphone and email user — all in the name of national security. Even early champions such as Mr. Sensenbrenner never contemplated the broad seizure of data now being justified under laws they passed in the name of national security.
The president’s defenders pushed back, arguing that whatever Congress might have expected, the administration is acting “legally” under the laws passed back then. After all, the “metadata” being scooped up is subject to a warrant. Collecting, collating and analyzing the information on the activities, habits and phone records of millions of Americans will make it “easier” to keep us all safe.
Maybe, but the willingness of successive administrations to go beyond the intent of Congress in a blind quest to protect the nation regardless of the impact on privacy, freedom and the civil society they are supposedly sworn to defend is troubling.
Mr. Sensenbrenner is a good man who was trying to do the right thing back then, but what he and so many others forgot is that government will always utilize all the power available to it, and then some. That’s why Republicans, Democrats, liberals and conservatives have to view every single request for more governmental power with one eye on the potential for abuse. Unfortunately, and particularly in cases where “national security” is a part of the equation, that doesn’t always happen.
Mr. Sensenbrenner argues that this breadth of privacy violations is the government’s misuse of a more limited grant of power and “un-American.” Perhaps, but the Founders tried to warn all of us that what we see today is just what we should have expected.
David A. Keene is president of the National Rifle Association of America.