A lesson in the loss of liberty
Mischief-makers have turned new surveillance powers against Americans
It was 2001 not long after the twin towers had fallen and the nation’s politicians were running scared. George W. Bush was in the White House and John Ashcroft was attorney general. They and the congressional leaders of both parties were debating what they dubbed the USA Patriot Act, which would increase the government’s ability to delve into what had heretofore been considered the constitutionally protected private communications of American citizens. Security needs, it was claimed, trumped privacy concerns, and warnings about the potential abuses that might occur once government was granted these new powers were ignored.
The late Paul Weyrich and I were equally concerned and opposed the legislation as it was being debated as far too broad and intrusive. One day Paul called to give me a “heads up.” He had been visited by two Justice Department officials who tried to dissuade him from continuing to publicly question the wisdom of the act. He expected they might come to see me as well, but that never happened.
He said they readily acknowledged that the act would vastly increase the power of the government to look into the affairs of U.S. citizens but argued, as its supporters in Congress were doing, that we were living in a dangerous new world where such powers were vitally needed to protect us all from terrorists. Besides, he said, they told him that we needn’t worry because “they” were the good guys and would never abuse the powers entrusted to them.
Paul said he told them that even if that were true, what would happen if a future administration put bad guys in charge with fewer qualms about abusing the new powers. They had no good answer to that, but I told Paul that even good guys shouldn’t be trusted with too much power. At some point human nature would lead even them to misuse it for their own ends.