The Magazine

The Paranoid Style In American Liberalism

Jan 2, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 16 • By WILLIAM KRISTOL
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No reasonable American, no decent human being, wants to send up a white flag in the war on terror. But leading spokesmen for American liberalism-hostile beyond reason to the Bush administration, and ready to believe the worst about American public servants-seem to have concluded that the terror threat is mostly imaginary. It is the threat to civil liberties from George W. Bush that is the real danger. These liberals recoil unthinkingly from the obvious fact that our national security requires policies that are a step (but only a careful step) removed from ACLU dogma.

On Monday, December 19, General Michael Hayden, former director of the National Security Agency and now deputy director of national intelligence, briefed journalists. The back--and--forth included this exchange:

Reporter: Have you identified armed enemy combatants, through this program, in the United States?

Gen. Hayden: This program has been successful in detecting and preventing attacks inside the United States.

Reporter: General Hayden, I know you're not going to talk about specifics about that, and you say it's been successful. But would it have been as successful-can you unequivocally say that something has been stopped or there was an imminent attack or you got information through this that you could not have gotten through going to the court?

Gen. Hayden: I can say unequivocally, all right, that we have got information through this program that would not otherwise have been available.

Now, General Hayden is by all accounts a serious, experienced, nonpolitical military officer. You would think that a statement like this, by a man in his position, would at least slow down the glib assertions of politicians, op--ed writers, and journalists that there was no conceivable reason for President Bush to bypass the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) court. As Gary Schmitt and David Tell explain elsewhere in this issue, FISA was broken well before 9/11. Was the president to ignore the evident fact that FISA's procedures and strictures were simply incompatible with dealing with the al Qaeda threat in an expeditious manner? Was the president to ignore the obvious incapacity of any court, operating under any intelligible legal standard, to judge surveillance decisions involving the sweeping of massive numbers of cell phones and emails by high--speed computers in order even to know where to focus resources? Was the president, in the wake of 9/11, and with the threat of imminent new attacks, really supposed to sit on his hands and gamble that Congress might figure out a way to fix FISA, if it could even be fixed? The questions answer themselves.

But the spokesmen for contemporary liberalism didn't pause to even ask these questions. The day after Gen. Hayden's press briefing, the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee blathered on about "the Constitution in crisis" and "impeachable conduct." Barbara Boxer, a Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, asserted there was "no excuse" for the president's actions. The ranking Democrat on that committee, Joseph Biden, confidently stated that the president's claims were "bizarre" and that "aggrandizement of power" was probably the primary reason for the president's actions, since "there was no need to do any of this."

So we are really to believe that President Bush just sat around after 9/11 thinking, "How can I aggrandize my powers?" Or that Gen. Hayden-and his hundreds of nonpolitical subordinates-cheerfully agreed to an obviously crazy, bizarre, and unnecessary project of "domestic spying"?

This is the fever swamp into which American liberalism is on the verge of descending.

Some have already descended. Consider Arlene Getz, senior editorial manager at Newsweek.com. She posted an article Wednesday-also after Gen. Hayden's press briefing-on Newsweek's website ruminating on "the parallels" between Bush's defense of his "spying program" and, yes, "South Africa's apartheid regime."

Back in the 1980s, when I was living in Johannesburg and reporting on apartheid South Africa, a white neighbor proffered a tasteless confession. She was "quite relieved," she told me, that new media restrictions prohibited our reporting on government repression. No matter that Pretoria was detaining tens of thousands of people without real evidence of wrongdoing. No matter that many of them, including children, were being tortured-sometimes to death. No matter that government hit squads were killing political opponents. No matter that police were shooting into crowds of black civilians protesting against their disenfranchisement. "It's so nice," confided my neighbor, "not to open the papers and read all that bad news."