- The Washington Times - Friday, December 23, 2005

The Democrats are determined to win the war and will stop at nothing to vanquish the enemy. The only problem is they’re fighting the wrong war against an imaginary foe.

This week, a majority of Senate Democrats (and a tiny handful of nervous Republicans) decided to abandon the war on terror and instead wage war on what they mistakenly believe is a Bush administration assault on civil liberties.

First, they threatened to filibuster the renewal of certain provisions of the Patriot Act, despite having overwhelmingly supported these same provisions when the law was enacted in 2001. Then they jumped all over news reports the president had ordered secret surveillance in the United States by the National Security Agency (NSA), without seeking a court order to do so. The overblown rhetoric on this story makes you wonder whether the president’s middle name is Millhouse and he was caught spying on a bunch of pot-smoking hippies who want to make love, not war. The whole episode would be droll if the stakes weren’t so high.

Opponents of the Patriot Act can point to no single instance of serious abuse of civil liberties caused by the law in the four years since it was enacted. But that doesn’t stop them from raising the specter of snooping feds pouring through library records or breaking into homes of innocent Americans for a “sneak and peek.” Worse, barely a year or two ago, many of these same critics demanded congressional and independent commission investigations of why this administration had failed to prevent the September 11, 2001 attacks that killed 3,000 people in the United States.

They can’t have it both ways. Either we are fighting an all-out war on an unconventional enemy that has already proved its ability to exploit our legal system and operate within our own country, or we aren’t. Either we want the government to do all it can to interrupt any future attacks, or we don’t. And if Democrats choose the latter course, they better make it clear they are willing to take responsibility for the loss of life that will surely follow if they turn out to be wrong.

I’m glad the NSA is using its sophisticated assets to monitor conversations between suspected terrorists in the United States and their handlers abroad. Imagine if the NSA had been listening to Mohamed Atta as he plotted to fly airplanes into the World Trade Center and Pentagon. What if we had been able to sneak into Atta’s apartment before the attack and discover he had airplane manuals and flight schedules alongside jihadist training tapes?

We don’t even have to engage in fantasy about what we might have uncovered that could have prevented September 11. FBI whistle-blower Coleen Rowley documented her fellow FBI agents’ frustration when they were unable to get a search warrant in August 2001 to examine the computer of Zacarias Moussaoui — who would have been the 20th hijacker had he not been taken into custody a month before the attack. The whole plot might have fallen apart if the FBI had been able to gain access to the information on Moussaoui’s hard drive.

Democrats have lost all sense of proportion. It’s hard to know if they are acting out of a misguided desire to protect civil liberties, which aren’t truly threatened in the first place, or simply playing politics. I would like to think it’s the former, but their actions over the last week point to partisanship as the likely cause. Where were these Democrat putative civil libertarians when the Clinton administration claimed the authority to engage in warrantless searches in the mid-1990s?

As Byron York reported on National Review Online this week, former Deputy Attorney General Jamie Gorelick testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee in July 1994 that, “The Department of Justice believes, and the case law supports, that the president has inherent authority to conduct warrantless physical searches for foreign intelligence purposes, and that the president may, as has been done, delegate this authority to the attorney general.” The issue came up after a federal search of the home of CIA spy Aldrich Ames without first obtaining a warrant. I don’t recall any Democrat stepped forward to allege Clinton administration violations of Ames’ civil liberties.

In former times, during a war, partisans set aside their differences and supported the commander in chief. Now it seems some Democrats would rather fight the president than ensure we win the real war waged by our actual enemies.

Linda Chavez is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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