Spying on Ordinary Americans

Editorial

New York Times

January 18, 2006

In times of extreme fear, American leaders have sometimes scrapped civil liberties in the name of civil protection. It's only later that the country can see that the choice was a false one and that citizens' rights were sacrificed to carry out extreme measures that were at best useless and at worst counterproductive. There are enough examples of this in American history - the Alien and Sedition Acts and the World War II internment camps both come to mind - that the lesson should be woven into the nation's fabric. But it's hard to think of a more graphic example than President Bush's secret program of spying on Americans.

The White House has offered steadily weaker arguments to defend the decision to eavesdrop on Americans' telephone calls and e-mail without getting warrants. One argument is that the spying produced unique and highly valuable information. Vice President Dick Cheney, who never shrinks from trying to prey on Americans' deepest fears, said that the spying had saved "thousands of lives" and could have thwarted the 9/11 attacks had it existed then.

Given the lack of good, hard examples, that argument sounded dubious from the start. A chilling article in yesterday's Times confirmed our fears.

According to the article, the eavesdropping swept up vast quantities of Americans' private communications without any reasonable belief that they could be related to terrorism. The National Security Agency flooded the Federal Bureau of Investigation with thousands of names, e-mail addresses, telephone numbers and other tips that virtually all led to dead ends or to innocent Americans.

About the only result the administration has been able to dredge up on behalf of the spying program is the claim that the information it gained helped disrupt two plots: one to destroy the Brooklyn Bridge and one to detonate fertilizer bombs in London. But officials in Washington and Britain disputed the connection. And that plot to cut down the Brooklyn Bridge with a blowtorch has been trotted out so many times that it would be comical if the issue were not so serious.

This was not just a tragic waste of the F.B.I.'s resources in dangerous times. It was an outrageous and pointless intrusion into individuals' privacy. Anyone who read the original reports on the spying operation and thought, "Well, so what, I have nothing to hide," should think about the uncounted innocent Americans who had F.B.I. officers knocking on their doors because of secret and possibly illegal surveillance. The National Security Agency was originally barred from domestic surveillance without court supervision to avoid just this sort of abuse.

The first lawsuits challenging the legality of the domestic spying operation were filed this week, and Congress plans hearings. We hope that lawmakers are more diligent about reining in Mr. Bush now than they have been about his other abuses of power in the name of fighting terrorism.