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Stuart Taylor: Obama Should Conduct Illegal Surveillance

By Matthew Yglesias on December 5, 2008 at 10:16 am

"Stuart Taylor: Obama Should Conduct Illegal Surveillance"

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A pretty stunning Stuart Taylor column in the National Journal:

Civil libertarians are rightly outraged by the brutality of some Bush administration interrogation methods; by Bush’s denial of fair hearings to hundreds of suspects at Guantanamo and elsewhere who claim that they are not terrorists; and by his years of secretly and perhaps illegally defying — rather than asking Congress to amend — the badly outdated Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

But the civil libertarians’ outrage does not stop there. Indeed, the prospect of anyone in the U.S. being inappropriately wiretapped, surveilled, or data-mined seems to stir the viscera of many Bush critics more than the prospect of thousands of people being murdered by terrorists. This despite the paucity of evidence that any innocent person anywhere has been seriously harmed in recent decades by governmental abuse of wiretapping, surveillance, or data mining.

On these and similar issues, Obama will have a choice: He can give the Left what it wants and weaken our defenses. Or he can follow the advice of his more prudent advisers, recognize that Congress, the courts, and officials including Attorney General Michael Mukasey have already moved to end the worst Bush administration abuses — and kick the hard Left gently in the teeth. I’m betting that Obama is smart and tough enough to do the latter.

Kicking the term “Bush critics” around is a huge red herring in this context. Bush is going to be out of office on January 20th. If anyone conducts illegal (or “inappropriate” to use Taylor’s newspeak term) surveillance of anyone, it’s going to be Barack Obama. Similarly, nonsensical talk of giving “the hard Left” a gentle kick in the teeth is neither here nor there. For years now the sensible center has engaged in the weird conceit that dislike of illegal violations of Americans’ constitutional liberties is some kind of odd symptom of possessing unduly vocifierous dislike of George W. Bush. But the issue, of course, extends far beyond Bush. The issue is whether or not we’re going to have meaningful limits on the power of the federal executive to conduct surveillance. Taylor thinks we should be so petrified of the risk of terrorist attack that we say “no.” After all, being illegally wiretapped never killed anybody.

I, for one, don’t want to live in that country. We already saw in the middle of the twentieth century where unlimited surveillance power leads — to massive politically motivated abuse. And of course it’s true that nothing J. Edgar Hoover or Richard Nixon ever did with their unlimited surveillance power ever “seriously harmed” anybody in the way that being killed by a terrorist harms you. But it still wasn’t a good idea to let them do that. American democracy can — and in fact has — survived a large-scale terrorist attack. But it can’t survive if the threat of terrorism is taken to mean that there should be no meaningful restrain on executive power.

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