Fearless Fosdick, the ace gumshoe in the old Li’l Abner comic strip who was assigned to prevent an unwitting shopper from buying the can of poisoned beans crafty evildoers had slipped into the food supply, is obviously the inspiration of the men who set out to collect the telephone records of every American.
Fearless patrolled the city’s supermarkets, shooting every little old lady who crossed his path right through the heart, leaving a large hole as she was about to drop a can of beans in her shopping cart. He always politely doffed his fedora and reassured her that it was nothing personal, he was doing it for everyone’s good. The evildoers must be thwarted, and the safety and security of bean-buyers preserved. When the poisoned can was finally found, unopened, and the landscape littered with dead little old ladies, Fearless felt properly chagrined. “Well,” he said, “I guess the joke’s on me. The boys at the station won’t ever let me live this down.”
James R. Clapper, the director of national intelligence, is Fearless Fosdick’s faithful heir. Consider this exchange last March, when Sen. Ron Wyden, Oregon Democrat, asked, with carefully precise language, whether the National Security Agency collects “any type of data at all, on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?”
“No, sir,” Mr. Clapper replied.
Mr. Clapper has trouble telling the truth to Congress, but he’s a master of the use of the weasel word to conceal the lie. Consider his explanation now of that contradiction. He tells NBC News he answered the senator’s question in “the most truthful, or the least most untruthful manner.”
The Obama administration and its well-meaning defenders, including several Republican members of Congress, argue that just because the government can discover intimate details about everyone’s life, beliefs, politics, sexual orientation, health, diseases and sexual infidelities doesn’t mean it would, with the click of a computer mouse, ever identify and mark this person for personal attention. (We trust the IRS, don’t we?) If the snoopery were as innocent as these defenders claim, the government wouldn’t have gone to so much trouble — in “the least most untruthful manner” — to hide what it was doing.
The Obama administration, like administrations before it and those to follow, has to deal with evil that the rest of us scarcely imagine. Intelligence officers, like Volkswagen mechanics, librarians, lawyers and hairdressers, are naturally on the scout for shortcuts to make difficult jobs easier. The White House has an obligation and the responsibility to pursue terrorists as relentlessly as it can, but, to borrow a famous excuse from a previous war, it must not yield to the temptation to destroy the village, or the country, to save it.
Government officials give short shrift to the slippery-slope argument, but that slippery slope is nevertheless at hand. Fearless Fosdick only wanted to do his job, too.
The Washington Times