Amid all the heated cross-currents of debate about the National Security Agency’s massive surveillance program, there is a growing distrust of the Obama administration that makes weighing the costs and benefits of the NSA program itself hard to assess.
The belated recognition of this administration’s contempt for the truth, for the American people and for the Constitution of the United States, has been long overdue.
But what if the NSA program has in fact thwarted terrorists and saved many American lives in ways that cannot be revealed publicly?
Nothing is easier than saying that you still don’t want your telephone records collected by the government. But the first time you have to collect the remains of your loved ones, after they have been killed by terrorists, telephone records can suddenly seem like a small price to pay to prevent such things.
The millions of records of phone calls collected every day virtually guarantee that nobody has the time to listen to them all, even if NSA could get a judge to authorize listening to what is said in all these calls, instead of just keeping a record of who called whom.
Moreover, congressional oversight by members of both political parties limits what Barack Obama or any other president can get away with.
Are these safeguards foolproof? No. Nothing is ever foolproof.
As Edmund Burke said, more than two centuries ago: “Constitute government how you please, infinitely the greater part of it must depend upon the exercise of the powers which are left at large to the prudence and uprightness of ministers of state.”
In other words, we do not have a choice whether to trust or not to trust government officials. Unless we are willing to risk anarchy or terrorism, the most we can do is set up checks and balances within government — and be a lot more careful in the future than we have been in the past when deciding whom to elect.
Anyone old enough to remember the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, when President John F. Kennedy took this country to the brink of nuclear war with the Soviet Union, may remember that there was nothing like the distrust and backlash against later presidents, whose controversial decisions risked nothing approaching the cataclysm that President Kennedy’s decision could have led to.
Even those of us who were not John F. Kennedy supporters, and who were not dazzled by the glitter and glamour of the Kennedy aura, nevertheless felt that the president of the United States was someone who knew much more than we did about the realities on which all our lives depended.
Whatever happened to that feeling? Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon happened — and both were shameless liars. They destroyed not only their own credibility, but the credibility of the office.
Even when Lyndon Johnson told us the truth at a crucial juncture during the Vietnam war — that the communist offensive of 1968 was a defeat for them, even as the media depicted it as a defeat for us — we didn’t believe him.
In later years, communist leaders themselves admitted that they had been devastated on the battlefield. But, by then it was too late. What the communists lost militarily on the ground in Vietnam they won politically in the American media and in American public opinion.
More than 50,000 Americans lost their lives winning battles on the ground in Vietnam, only to have the war lost politically back home.
We seem to be having a similar scenario unfolding today in Iraq, where soldiers won the war, only to have politicians lose the peace, as Iraq now increasingly aligns itself with Iran.
When Barack Obama squanders his own credibility with his glib lies, he is not just injuring himself during his time in office. He is inflicting a lasting wound on the country as a whole.
But we the voters are not blameless. Having chosen an untested man to be president, on the basis of rhetoric, style and symbolism, we have ourselves to blame if we now have only a choice between two potentially tragic fates — the loss of American lives to terrorism or a further dismantling of our freedoms that has already led many people to ask: “Is this still America?”
THOMAS SOWELL’S column is distributed by Creators Syndicate Inc.