It was 2001 not long after the twin towers had fallen and the nation’s politicians were running scared. George W. Bush was in the White House and John Ashcroft was attorney general. They and the congressional leaders of both parties were debating what they dubbed the USA Patriot Act, which would increase the government’s ability to delve into what had heretofore been considered the constitutionally protected private communications of American citizens. Security needs, it was claimed, trumped privacy concerns, and warnings about the potential abuses that might occur once government was granted these new powers were ignored.
The late Paul Weyrich and I were equally concerned and opposed the legislation as it was being debated as far too broad and intrusive. One day Paul called to give me a “heads up.” He had been visited by two Justice Department officials who tried to dissuade him from continuing to publicly question the wisdom of the act. He expected they might come to see me as well, but that never happened.
He said they readily acknowledged that the act would vastly increase the power of the government to look into the affairs of U.S. citizens but argued, as its supporters in Congress were doing, that we were living in a dangerous new world where such powers were vitally needed to protect us all from terrorists. Besides, he said, they told him that we needn’t worry because “they” were the good guys and would never abuse the powers entrusted to them.
Paul said he told them that even if that were true, what would happen if a future administration put bad guys in charge with fewer qualms about abusing the new powers. They had no good answer to that, but I told Paul that even good guys shouldn’t be trusted with too much power. At some point human nature would lead even them to misuse it for their own ends.
Now that it has come to light that the Obama administration ramped up surveillance during the 2016 election cycle and “unmasked” dozens of people not because of a looming national security threat but to get a peek at the thinking of the administration’s opponents, the concerns we and others raised then and since have been proved correct.
Liberal civil libertarian types were convinced back then that it was dangerous to entrust too much to the likes of George W Bush, but went silent when Barack Obama entered the White House. Mr. Obama, after all, was one of their good guys, had been a member of the anti-Bush pro-civil libertarian chorus denouncing the threats the act posed to privacy and freedom and could be trusted. As believers in the near sainthood of their president, they remained silent as he signed legislation reauthorizing even the most hated parts of the act and hardly whispered their concerns when he let it be known that his administration would make more use of the powers they found so dangerous when Mr. Bush sat in the Oval Office, taking steps to widen his administration’s surveillance powers far beyond the limits in place during the Bush years.
Imagine what sort of public uproar would have erupted if, during the 2008 campaign, it had been revealed that the outgoing Bush administration had been caught doubling or tripling surveillance of its opponents and was “unmasking” candidate John McCain’s foreign policy advisers whose names may have been picked up through surveillance of noncitizens in troubled areas of the world. The media, Democrats in Congress and the liberal pundits would have simply gone berserk, but the cavalier use of these same powers by Mr. Obama against folks they don’t like hasn’t fazed them a bit.
Mr. Trump was right last week when, following the congressional testimony of former Acting Attorney General Sally Yates and former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, he tweeted, “Biggest story today between Clapper & Yates is on surveillance. Why doesn’t the media report on this?” It’s a good question given the way the media went after every real or imagined allegation of abuse prior to Mr. Obama’s ascension to the presidency.
The answer should be obvious. It goes beyond ideology to the nature of trusting government with too much power. When any government official assures the public that he or she can be trusted with powers we wouldn’t trust to “bad guys,” we should be wary because powers that can be abused will be abused by someone at some time for motives good or bad.
And that’s a story worthy of far more attention than it’s getting.
• David A. Keene is editor at large at The Washington Times.
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