THERE WAS something missing from the full-page advertisement that the American Civil Liberties Union ran in newspapers around the country last week.
The ad kicked off an ACLU campaign called "Don't Spy On Me," which aims to pressure federal and state regulators into investigating the phone companies that supplied domestic call records to federal intelligence analysts.
Subtle the ad wasn't. "IF YOU'VE USED A TELEPHONE IN THE LAST FIVE YEARS, READ THIS," shouted the headline in end-of-the-world-sized type. "AT&T,
"Stop this abuse of power now," the advertisement urged. "File a complaint." Readers were directed to the new "Don't Spy On Me" page at the ACLU web site, where they can sign a petition telling the Federal Communications Commission to "get the spies off the line."
You would never know from all this heavy breathing that the data supplied to the NSA consisted of phone numbers only, stripped of any identifying names or addresses. Or that the calls themselves weren't actually monitored . Or that the Supreme Court has ruled that the government doesn't need a warrant to collect phone records, since information voluntarily disclosed to a third party (such as the phone company) isn't protected by the Fourth Amendment.
Perhaps the ACLU would dispute those points. Perhaps it would say they don't change the central issue -- that the collection of this calling data represents a government encroachment into private behavior, with all the possibilities for abuse that entails.
But something else was omitted from the ACLU's ad -- something so crucial to this issue that only an organization suffering from acute moral myopia could ignore it: context.
Nowhere in its advertisement does the ACLU make any mention of terrorism or Sept. 11, or of the horrific price we paid that day for failing to "connect the dots" before the terrorists could strike. Nowhere does the ad acknowledge that we are at war or that the jihadists have been able to murder thousands of innocent people by infiltrating free societies and attacking from within. The ACLU is passionate about protecting Americans' privacy; it says nothing about protecting American lives. How can an organization committed to civil liberties simply disregard the threat posed to the foremost civil liberty of all? Before blasting the government for data-mining through anonymous telephone records, shouldn't it at least consider whether doing so has prevented any attacks or saved any lives?
It isn't just the ACLU's advertising that provides no context for the phone-records controversy. The ACLU's web site also appears to provide none. There is no mention of preventing terrorism either on its home page or on its "Don't Spy On Me" page. But there is an animated movie featuring a hero who charges, "Someone has been secretly spying on us -- tapping our phones, reading our e-mails, tracking every move we make." Naturally, the eavesdropping villains turn out to be George Bush and Dick Cheney.
To anti-Bush partisans, the administration cannot possibly have any legitimate interest in domestic telephone records, and it was an outrage for Verizon,
Earlier this month, a British parliamentary committee issued its report on the terrorist attacks in London last July, and on what could have been done to prevent them. It reached the obvious conclusion: "If we seek greater assurance against the possibility of attacks, some increase in intrusive activity by the UK's intelligence and security agencies is . . . inevitable." There is always some tradeoff between civil liberty and national security, and the point at which they balance is not fixed. Reasonable people understand what the ACLU seems to have forgotten: Before you can connect the dots, you have to collect them.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
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