Big Brother’s deadly reach

    We can drop the glittering ball amid the crush in Times Square. We
    can count the final seconds in the crush-free solitude of our TV
    parlors. We can wear silly party hats, blow silly noisemakers, kiss
    significants or strangers, inadvertently miss midnight by falling
    asleep in our Lazy Boys, or advertently miss it by banishing ourselves
    early to bed in the grandiloquent philosophy of, like, whatever.

    We can ring out 2005 and ring in 2006. But we can’t seem to rid ourselves of 1984.

    Big Brotherism is back in the news. The specter of it surfaced in the
    last days of the old year and now it’s slopping over into the new. It
    is as though we have all fallen into an Orwell and can’t get out.

    The Big Brother in question here is the super-secret National Security
    Agency, America’s global stethoscope. Super-secret, that is, until
    Dec.16, when The New York Times reported that since shortly after 9/11,
    President Bush has allowed the NSA to electronically eavesdrop on
    conversations involving individuals inside the United States _ without
    getting a warrant from a judge in a secret court created three decades
    ago for just that purpose. Yes, it revealed some security info about
    surveillance. But what made this a story that had to be reported was
    that a president was deliberately ignoring the law. So the Times
    reported and now the American people can decide.

    But faster than
    you could say “George Orwell, report to rewrite!” the scoop ignited
    firestorms of criticism and explanation. Distortion became the weapon
    of choice for Bush bashers and Bush defenders (including Himself). Soon
    Americans were eavesdropping on a loud debate about a
    now-unrecognizable reality.

    Our job today is to clean up the Old
    Year’s mess by making clear what is really happening and what is not;
    what is unlawful and what is not; and _ mainly _ what is needed to keep
    Americans safe in the global terror age and what is not.

    The
    controversy began with a national security need that is undeniably
    urgent. Shortly after al Qaeda’s terrorist attacks on U.S. soil,
    computers and cell phones seized in raids on al Qaeda suspects overseas
    revealed contacts with people in the United States.

    The
    President: Quite appropriately, President Bush sought to immediately
    begin eavesdropping on those al Qaeda-connected people. The Foreign
    Intelligence Surveillance Act permits him to do so instantaneously _
    for 48 hours while he seeks a warrant from a secret court that since
    the 1970s granted more than 18,000 and denied just four. But Bush
    ignored the law, ordering the continued surveillance in a way that, by
    any definition, is unwarranted.

    The Critics: Republicans as well
    as Democrats criticized the president’s disregard of the law. But many
    Democrats labeled it a sweeping program to spy on Americans _ that goes
    too far. It is spying on people in America who, evidence shows, were in
    contact with suspected terrorists _ and must be monitored. On Dec. 21,
    a page-one New York Times report headlined “Spying Program Snared U.S.
    Calls,” fanned the flames while covering the fire by reporting some NSA
    intercepts were “purely domestic communications.” Example: a
    foreign-based cell phone thought to be overseas was actually in America
    and called another U.S.-based person. Technically it was domestic and
    should have been an FBI snoop under existing rules.

    Rethink and
    Reform: The globalization of economics, communications and terrorism,
    demands that we rethink old rules requiring the NSA to conduct only
    foreign snooping and the FBI only domestic. (As if the FBI never
    violated individual’s rights!) Consider this: An al Qaeda operative in
    Pakistan e-mails someone in New York, who instantly forwards it to
    someone in Chicago. Requiring a bureaucratic handoff in mid-snoop
    invites a catastrophic snafu (recall the FBI’s pre-9/11 bungling). Our
    protection comes only from requiring a secret court judge’s warrant to
    eavesdrop. And, of course, our unshakeable trust that our leader will
    not lie to us.

    A Guarantee President Bush Cannot Ignore: Our
    final word comes not from a mere pundit but from an informed source
    familiar with Bush’s thinking: “… any time you hear the United States
    government talking about wiretap, it requires _ a wiretap requires a
    court order. Nothing has changed, by the way. When we’re talking about
    chasing down terrorists, we’re talking about getting a court order
    before we do so. It’s important for our fellow citizens to understand,
    when you think Patriot Act, constitutional guarantees are in place when
    it comes to doing what is necessary to protect our homeland, because we
    value the Constitution.”

    The source: Bush, speaking in Buffalo,
    on April 20, 2004 _ more than two years after he had begun ordering
    wiretaps without a court order.

    (Martin Schram writes political analysis for Scripps Howard News Service. E-mail him at martin.schram(at)gmail.com.)