When the media first reported that a White House functionary — later identified as Craig Livingstone -had obtained files containing personal information on Bush Administration employees, a lot of us felt queasy. The image of some partisan operative gloating over private information he might use to benefit his patrons and…
When the media first reported that a White House functionary — later identified as Craig Livingstone -had obtained files containing personal information on Bush Administration employees, a lot of us felt queasy. The image of some partisan operative gloating over private information he might use to benefit his patrons and discredit his opponents evokes the peeping tom, hiding in the bushes and peering through the bedroom window. Members of Congress and media commentators as well as the ACLU expressed outrage. Libertarian Republicans and liberal Democrats alike reminded the Administration that authorities do not have the right to snoop on those with whom they disagree.
To their eternal credit, several members of that unlikely coalition are also refusing to go along with an even broader attack on the privacy of American citizens. Under the guise of fighting terrorism, President Clinton has asked Congress to approve greatly expanded authority for the federal government.
The President has surely taken the politically astute position. The entire country is shaken by events of these past weeks. With the Oklahoma bombing still a fresh and painful memory, we have collectively mourned the senseless and tragic loss of TWA Flight 800 and the despicable violation of the Olympic spirit. The most disquieting attribute of terrorism is the random and unpredictable nature of such attacks, the realization that they are the product of diseased minds unlikely to be swayed by reason or decency. How do we protect ourselves and our loved ones? How do we regain a sense of security?
There are, of course, many sensible things we can and must do. Do we need additional FBI agents? We should hire and train them. Should we make it easier to trace dangerous chemicals by requiring manufacturers and importers to "tag" them? Certainly. There is much in the Administration’s Anti-Terrorism Act that is prudent.
It is neither prudent nor Constitutional, however, to give the federal government massive new police powers. The Act contains an extensive list of measures that would reduce the evidence necessary to justify FBI infiltration of virtually any domestic group. Freshman Republicans have voiced concern that the bill would concentrate too much power in the hands of federal law enforcement officials, leading to selective prosecutions based upon political beliefs and further federalizing state law. They are also concerned that the bill gives the FBI broad access to consumer information without any evidence of criminal behavior. Liberal Democrats are worried about provisions allowing the Administration to wiretap almost at will, and to designate any disfavored group as "terrorist." If a foreign group is so labeled, its representatives would be barred from entering the country; American citizens who contributed to lawful activities of such organizations would be subject to felony prosecutions and prison sentences. Had such measures been law when the ANC was considered an "outlaw" in South Africa, Americans funding a speaking tour by Nelson Mandela would have been felons.
A desire to safeguard the President cannot justify "filegate." Our collective security does not require surrender of our liberties to "big brother." If we trade the Constitution for security, the terrorists have won.