What Are You, a Terrorist?


During the last year the focus of the debate about amending the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) has been retroactive immunity for the telecommunications companies that cooperated with President Bush's illegal post-9/11 program of warrantless wiretaps. But the scandal from now on will be what's legal. Although Democrats, including Barack Obama, made a big show of resisting the immunity provision, they seemed resigned from the beginning to surrendering the privacy of Americans' international communications. Under the newly revised FISA, only the executive branch's good faith and competence will protect innocent people from warrantless snooping. Which is fine, if you assume that government officials never have bad motives and never make mistakes. According to Sen. Christopher Bond (R-Mo.), The New York Times reports, "there is nothing to fear in the bill…'unless you have Al Qaeda on your speed dial.'"

Bond seems to speak for most Americans. The most common reader response I get when I write about this subject is, "What makes you think the government is interested in spying on you? Get over yourself!" The second most common response is, "What are you, a terrorist?"

Polling on this issue suggests that framing it the way Bond does makes a big difference. An August 2007 ICR poll commissioned by Democrats.com told respondents, "President Bush wants the power to wiretap the phone calls and emails of Americans without a search warrant from a judge." Nearly three-quarters (73 percent) disapproved, 60 percent strongly. A January 2006 ABC News poll, by contrast, told respondents, "The National Security Agency has been investigating people suspected of involvement with terrorism by secretly listening in on telephone calls and reading e-mails between some people in the United States and other countries, without first getting court approval to do so." Asked whether "this wiretapping of telephone calls and e-mails without court approval" was "an acceptable or unacceptable way for the federal government to investigate terrorism," 56 percent said it was acceptable.

Just saying terrorism, it seems, makes concerns about civil liberties disappear. Notably, of the two major-party presidential candidates, it was Obama, the one who supposedly is more sensitive to civil liberties (having taught constitutional law and all), who voted for the FISA amendments. McCain supports the bill too, but he was too busy campaigning to cast a vote, and he knew it wouldn't be close. The Senate vote was 69 to 28, which means senators are even more eager than their constituents to let the government spy at will. Only on terrorists, of course.