The right tactics in the wrong hands

A couple of weeks ago, President Barack Obama effectively declared the war on terror was over. Now, he wasn’t entirely clear about what matrix was used to arrive at that determination. It was not that the enemy had surrendered, signed an armistice, called for a cease fire or just gave up the fight. It appears the president simply up and decided one day that, yes sir, indeed, the war is over.

I’ll dispense for now with any observations a critical oversight in this formulation was to duly notify the terrorists of this change since plenty of others have raised that particular finger of objection. I will remark, though, as I have before, this is merely further evidence this administration is entirely out of its depth on defense-related matters. That thesis was bolstered when the president named none other than Susan Rice as national security advisor — presumably because she did such a bang-up job handling the Benghazi narrative.

These developments were somewhat sidelined by more recent revelations of the National Security Agency’s collection of meta data — the records of millions of telephone calls made both internationally and domestically, of information such as phone numbers, length of call and the like. This was a chilling revelation to many, especially among political opponents of the president, and most especially coming on the heels of the news the IRS deliberately targeted conservative nonprofits.

It’s important to distill what happened. The contents of those phone calls were never part of the NSA program. In other words, the agency wasn’t listening in on Verizon calls without a warrant.

And while the legal interpretation is as contestable as any legal argument, it’s generally accepted the information collected was not subject to Fourth Amendment protections, as the content of those calls would be. In National Review Online, Andrew McCarthy described it helpfully using the envelope analogy — the name and address on an envelope aren’t constitutionally protected private information, while the letter within is.

Outside some hard-core libertarian and the usual left-wing circles, there’s a general acknowledgment government has a duty — in fact, no higher duty — to protect against threats to the security of the people. The question has always been how to navigate that legitimate role within a free society. The utopian liberals have always had a struggle with that. Their particular world view tendentiously calls for a politically correct approach that displaces measures deemed “unfair” or “insensitive” and leaning heavily towards a radical application of civil libertarianism. Where conservatism insists on coming to terms with the world as it is, the liberal is hell bent on changing it to fit a preconceived, if unrealistic, design.

So when attempting to deal with the problem of terror under this paradigm, the more effective tactics — detention and interrogation of terrorists and risk-based screening (“profiling,” if you must) — are cast aside. The paradoxical result is that efforts such as data mining become more necessary as other more profitable options are removed from the suite.

By all accounts, the NSA program was conducted within the bounds of the law. The information gleaned was not protected by the Fourth Amendment, Congress was duly informed and all procedures spelled out in the FISA law were observed. So the NSA activity might not have been wrong in the technical sense — it might have, in fact, been proper. But it is a proper power in the hands of one whose motivations for using it are suspect?

Whatever the eventual political or constitutional fallout from the series of recent scandals plaguing the presidency, the most immediate is a trust deficit — the widespread loss of trust and faith in a government that feels unbound by traditional limits. This is especially acute among the political constituency for which a healthy and historically seasoned skepticism of government power is the default position.

But while leveling deserved animadversions at the current administration for perceived breaches, conservatives need to examine the issues of privacy, civil liberties and executive power in a manner that accounts for the costs associated with unchecked intrusion as well as those associated with the vacuum created by radical and equally unchecked application of civil liberties. The Constitution provides the checks. It also provides requisite allowances, in the context of war, where national security is the government’s, and society’s, highest and most fateful concern.

Of course, part of the problem is the president said the war is over.

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