- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 9, 2006

“The critical question before the committee was to determine how the fundamental liberties of the people can be maintained in the course of the government’s effort to protect their security. The delicate balance between these basic goals of our system of government is often difficult to strike, but it can, and must, be achieved.”

That is not a statement from a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which last Monday heard testimony from Attorney General Alberto Gonzales about Bush administration efforts to monitor conversations of terrorist suspects. It is from the introduction to the 1976 “Final Report of the Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities,” sometimes called the Church Committee after its chairman, Sen. Frank Church, Idaho Democrat.

The New York Times recalled those “glorious” (for the left) days by reprinting a picture of Church talking to reporters during the 1975 hearings into the misuse of intelligence gathering by the Nixon administration. Though Nixon used government agencies to spy on his domestic political enemies, the Times wants its readers to believe the Bush administration monitoring of phone calls and other communications between terrorist suspects outside the country, and those inside, is similar behavior. What the newspaper fails to acknowledge is that the findings of the Church Committee led to dismantling many useful intelligence-gathering operations, thus limiting our ability to gather precisely the type of intelligence that would have been useful in stopping the terrorist attacks against America of September 11, 2001.

Senate Judiciary Committee Democrats denied they are trying to write a bill of rights for terrorists. Ranking Member Patrick Leahy of Vermont assured his colleagues and those watching C-SPAN, which carried the hearing live, that he wants to do everything possible to find terrorists before they kill more of us. He just wants to make sure it is done “legally.”

Democrats appeared not to accept Mr. Gonzales’ testimony that the surveillance is done legally, preferring to make political points rather than capture and defeat the enemy.

The danger in tinkering with intelligence gathering is that the tinkerers sometimes go too far. In its effort to curtail domestic eavesdropping and foreign spying 30 years ago, a Democratic Congress used the Church Committee findings on illegal domestic surveillance in a way that some analysts believe curtailed access to information vital to U.S. security.

The CIA came to rely more on satellites and other technologies and less on human intelligence. The result was we had fewer people who spoke the languages of the countries in which they operated and that has reduced our ability to gather information only obtainable on the ground.

Politicians, egged on by the crusading media (especially self-righteous after “bringing down” President Nixon), resembled constitutional fundamentalists. Today’s left quotes the text of the Constitution as if it means what it says on searches and seizures, though when it comes to behavior the left wishes to condone, the Constitution morphs into a “living document” in constant need of updating to suit the times. Which is it?

Liberals in the 1970s began suggesting virtually all American spying is unconstitutional. Soviet and Chinese spies were to be expected, but we shouldn’t “be like them.”

A similar double standard exists today in much of the big media and among certain liberal politicians of both parties. The enemy does what it wants without restraint. We shackle ourselves and are shocked when attacked by those who aren’t shackled. Then we ask, “What went wrong?”

In his defense of the president’s order to monitor limited communications between foreign terrorist suspects and people in the United States, Mr. Gonzales listed a number of presidents, Democrat and Republican, dating to the 19th century, who used far more invasive and widespread tactics to gather intelligence believed crucial to national defense.

If the United States is attacked again, the next congressional hearings (assuming Congress survives the attack) will focus on why more wasn’t done to protect us. More is being done and public opinion seems to be fine with it for now, complaints from liberal Democrats (and a few liberal Republicans) notwithstanding.

Cal Thomas is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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