Sunday, January 1, 2006
By Steven L. Taylor

From today’s Meet the Press comes this personal tale from Williams Safire, conservative and Bush supporter:

MR. SAFIRE: I was writing a speech on welfare reform, and the president looks at it and says, “OK, I’ll go with it, but this is not going to get covered. Leak it as far an wide as you can beforehand. Maybe we’ll get something in the paper.” And so I go back to my office and I get a call from a reporter, and he wants to know about foreign affairs or something, and I said, “Hey, you want a leak? I’ll tell you what the president will say tomorrow about welfare reform.” And he took it down and wrote a little story about it. But the FBI was illegally tapping his phone at the time, and so they hear a White House speechwriter say, “Hey, you want a leak?” And so they tapped my phone, and for six months, every home phone call I got was tapped. I didn’t like that. And when it finally broke–it did me a lot of good at the time, frankly, because then I was on the right side–but it told me how easy it was to just take somebody who is not really suspected of anything for any good reason and listen to every conversation in his home–you know, my wife talking to her doctor, my–everything.

So I have this thing about personal privacy. And I think what’s happening now is that the–as a result of that scandal back in the ’70s, we got this electronic eavesdropping act stopping it, or requiring the president to go before this court. Now, this court’s a rubber-stamp court, let’s face it. They give five noes and 20,000 yeses.

MR. RUSSERT: The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, FISA.

MR. SAFIRE: Right. But the very fact that the FBI has to do a little paperwork beforehand slows them down and makes them think for a minute. It doesn’t slow them down as much as the president has made out to believe, because there’s a wrinkle in it saying that if it’s a real emergency and you have to get this information, then you can get it and get the approval within 72 hours afterwards. So there’s always this struggle in a war between liberty and security. Doris, you go into that in your book, and Lincoln did, indeed, suspend habeas corpus, but there it is in the Constitution, “It shall not be suspended except in invasion or a rebellion,” so he had the right to. He didn’t have the right, I think, to close the Brooklyn Eagle or see the arrest of the leading dissident, Vanlandingham, and he made some mistakes.

But just as FDR later made a mistake with the eight saboteurs and hanged them all, and just as we made a terrible mistake with the Japanese-Americans in World War II and have apologized for that. During wartime, we have this excess of security and afterwards we apologize. And that’s why I offended a lot of my conservative and hard-line friends right after September 11th when they started putting these captured combatants in jail, and said the president can’t seize dictatorial power. And a lot of my friends looked at me like I was going batty. But now we see this argument over excessive security, and I’m with the critics on that.

As I continue to note, it isn’t that I oppose the notion that there are reasons for persons on the shores of the US (including citizens) to have their phones tapped, the issue is whether there is any attempt to ensure that there is a good reason for the person in question to be under surveillance. The zeal of even a well-intentioned executive to do what he thinks is proper to protect the nation must be checked.

Again, I would return to a basic principle of modern conservative thought (not to mention a foundational tenet of the founding of the US), which is that relying on human nature to guarantee that the right thing is done, sans proper constraints, is a dangerous path to tread. Indeed, wise government (and this notion goes back to Aristotle) must have adequate balance to maintain itself.

To assume that the executive, either this specific one, or the institution in general, to know when it should exercise restraint

Further, it must be considered that it is the natural propensity of executives, in times of security threats, to seek expansion of their power. In such times, in constitutional democracies, it should not be left up to the executive alone to determine what the boundaries should be.

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3 Responses to “An Example of the Possible Problems of Unchecked Wiretaps”

  1. bryan Says:

    I caught Safire’s comments as well, and found them very interesting. And salient.

  2. Fruits and Votes Says:

    Safire and Taylor on wiretaps–and my radical wish for 2006

    William Safire was on Meet the Press today. I did not see it, just like I missed the drop kick (though maybe I will catch both later). Safire is not exactly a fire-breathing radical–or maybe he is (more on that later). I recommend Steven Taylor&…

  3. PoliBlog: A Rough Draft of my Thoughts » Safire Video Says:

    [...] Safire Video
    By Dr. Steven Taylor @ 10:27 pm

    To see the segment from MTP that I mentioned earlier today, surf on over to Crooks and Liars.

    Filed under: US Pol [...]

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