A debate worth having, but don’t hold your breath

At the end of its long piece about President Bush’s use of his wartime powers, the Washington Post quotes Michael Woods, former chief of the FBI’s national security law unit, as follows:

[W]e ought to be past the time of emergency responses. We ought to have more considered views now. . . . We have time to debate a legal regime and what’s appropriate.

He has a point. History tells us that nations sometimes react to a surprise attack by implementing overly aggressive internal security measures. This is an understandable response, but with the passage of time it becomes possible, and indeed imperative, to better calibrate security policy so as to better protect civil liberties.

It may be that the Bush administration over-estimated the threat of another terrorist attack. Or it may be that the threat has diminished due to the successes of the administration’s policy. In any case, one can hardly disagree with Woods that this is a proper subject for debate.

So let’s have the debate. President Bush has made his position clear. He believes that the ongoing threat to the homeland is such that there can be no diminution of our efforts to provide internal security. But what about the Democrats? Do they believe that the president over-estimated the threat al Qaeda poses to the homeland? Do they believe the administration has succeeded in substantially diminishing that threat? Do they believe it makes sense to talk about being at war with terrorism, such that the president should be invoking his wartime powers?

The Democrats haven’t said, and they don’t want to say. They would argue that these questions are too general, and that the focus should be on the specifics of the Patriot Act and other specific surveillance techniques. Such specifics are the legitimate subject of debate, but they are difficult to debate in the abstract, outside the context of the nature of the threat we face. Moreover, if Congress is concerned with the general tenor of Bush’s internal security policy, it should want to provide him with general guidance, rather than focusing solely on a policy-by-policy approach. This is especially true if Congress believes Bush is secretly implementing abusive policies.

The debate over domestic surveillance issues turns on balancing our security needs against our need to protect individual rights. If the president is incorrectly analyzing the security side of the equation, Congress should tell him so. If he is analyzing the security side correctly but erring in other respects, Congress should tell him that.

But don’t hold your breath. The Democrats aren’t much interested in a genuine debate about the difficult trade-offs between security and privacy, and they certainly don’t want to go on record one way or the other about the nature of the security threat we face. In truth, the Democrats are mostly interested in taking pot-shots at the president pursuant to whatever attack item the MSM is pushing during a given week.

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