Alexander's Column

Civil liberties v. al-Qa'ida nukes — guess who wins?

Mark Alexander · Jan. 20, 2006

Thursday, a message from al-Qa'ida leader Osama bin Laden was broadcast by Islamist media networks. We use the word “leader” very loosely here, because when you are living in a rat hole, and the National Security Agency can detect, in real time, any electronic communication between you and your terrorist cadre, while the CIA, DoD and a few other folks are on the ground capturing or killing anyone associated with you, leadership can be, well, a problem.

Of course, there was nothing clandestine about the latest message from Osama. It was intended for the American media and sounded as if it had been excerpted from recent anti-American rhetoric from Ted Kennedy, Harry Reid and other Demo-gogues.

Osama’s periodic broadcasts need not be a source of anxiety for the free world, but the prospect of undetected communication between al-Qa'ida operatives around the world and their Islamist comrades in the West, particularly in the U.S., should evoke a little angst. If Kennedy and Reid have their way, make that a lot of angst.

Fortunately, recent attempts by Democrats to make civil liberties the central political theme of the upcoming midterm elections have failed to get off the ground. Demo leaders Reid and Kennedy launched this initiative in late December, citing objections to renewal of certain USA Patriot Act provisions. Those objections were timed to coincide with The New York Times' revelation NSA surveillance of communications between potential al-Qa'ida terrorist cell members in the U.S. and known al-Qa'ida principals around the world.

Never mind that The Times had been sitting on that revelation for eight months since a former NSA employee, who had his clearances revoked and was fired out of concern for his “mental stability,” disclosed the information about the NSA’s surveillance program. Never mind that the program was a critical intelligence capability in our efforts to thwart a catastrophic terrorist attack on the U.S.

The Washington Post followed with news of a massive covert CIA program to capture suspected terrorists, and interrogate them at secret detention centers around the world. The Post described the program as the largest covert CIA operation since World War II, and went on to note, reluctantly, “The CIA, working with foreign counterparts, has been responsible for virtually all of the success the United States has had in capturing or killing al-Qa'ida leaders since Sept. 11, 2001.”

Never mind that information gleaned from NSA surveillance helped bag some of those bad – and we do mean BAD – guys.

Despite their best efforts to turn President George Bush’s authorization of the NSA program into a criminal case, it turns out that no laws were broken, and most Americans actually want their government to track communications between domestic Islamist groups and al-Qa'ida principals around the world – not to mention capturing or killing the latter.

Leftist agitators are a tenacious lot, and this week they enlisted the help of Albert Arnold Gore to re-launch their “civil liberties” initiative. Gore, who learned the art of the lie from a grand master, offered this prevarication: “What we do know about this pervasive wiretapping virtually compels the conclusion that the president of the United States has been breaking the law, repeatedly and persistently. [President Bush] is undermining the American values we hold most dear.”

Gore’s scripted comments were remarkably coincident with lawsuits filed by the American Civil Liberties Union, the Council on American Islamic Relations, Greenpeace and the grotesquely misnamed Center for Constitutional Rights. The plaintiffs claim they regularly e-mail and telephone associates in the Middle East and have a “well-founded belief” that their communications are being intercepted.

Apparently, this cadre of Leftists has not read Article II, section 2, of the Constitution, which grants the President the power to act as “Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States” and authorizes “Executive power.” They might also peruse Article III, section 3, on treason. That would be the same Article III, section 3, which John Kerry neglected to peruse.

The Demo-gogues' midterm-election “civil liberties” initiative notwithstanding, the fact remains that on the morning of 11 September 2001, almost 3,000 Americans had their civil liberties terminated in about an hour. But if you think the events of that morning were ugly, we would ask you to think bigger – MUCH BIGGER. Think catastrophic detonation of a nuclear weapon in a major urban center.

Fortunately, The Times and The Post have not yet divulged the detection methods the NSA, CIA and DoD utilized to sniff out fissile material in various modes of transportation around major urban centers (though U.S. News and World Report gave it a shot in their Christmas edition). Alas, it took a New York second for a Georgetown law professor to insist that any attempt to detect nukes in private vehicles without a warrant constitutes an “intrusion on privacy.”

Now, all this is not to say that there shouldn’t be substantial failsafe redundancies with respect to surveillance operations – whether authorized by warrant or executive order. Indeed, there should and must be such protections.

However, in times of war and national crisis, it is common and, indeed, necessary that the pendulum between individual liberty and national security swings toward the latter. However, to what extent, both morally and legally, is it acceptable to infringe upon the rights of the individual in order to attain this security? In philosophy, this age-old dilemma is broadly known as the problem of the one and the many: How does the one (the individual) relate to the many (civil society) without one’s infringing upon and ultimately swallowing the other? In such questions as these, we are faced with two competing risks: individual autonomy at the cost of civil security and stability on the one hand, and totalitarianism of the state against the individual on the other hand.

In 1759, Benjamin Franklin noted, “They that can give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.” His words have been widely cited in connection with arguments against Patriot Act provisions and surveillance programs.

Clearly, there is no evidence that anyone’s “essential liberty” has been willfully violated by these national-security provisions or programs. Notably, however, Franklin’s remark came almost 150 years before Albert Einstein’s observation that energy can be understood in terms of mass times celeritas squared.

This week, Iran is busy ramping up its uranium-enrichment program at Natanz, and Demo strategists are huddling behind closed doors to determine how this development might be best be used to support their midterm-election objectives. One hopes that should Osama’s boys come to possess a quantity of weapon-grade uranium suitable to light up a large U.S. urban center, the Demo’s ostensible “concern the civil liberties” will not deter our detecting their plan to test Einstein’s theory.