In the August 20 edition of Newsweek, there is a column by Jonathan Alter entitled, “I Know What You Did Last Summer.” In the guise of reporting facts, it reports instead the personal opinion of Mr. Alter that the extension of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) “sold out the Constitution,” specifically the Fourth Amendment guarantee against “unreasonable search and seizure.”
Alter claims that “historians … will see this episode as a classic case of fear … trumping principle amid the ancient tension between personal freedom and national security.” Unfortunately, Alter’s acquaintance with historians seems slight. He may know some names, but he hasn’t read the books. Not about World War II, for instance.
He claims that the proceedings of the existing FISA court are kept secret “because they might be politically embarrassing.” No, they are secret because revealing the details of spying on enemy agents while a war is going on will get people killed, including Americans. It is only now, more than half a century after WW II, that the best-kept secrets of intelligence gathering in that war, are becoming public.
Alter admits that spying on foreigners talking to foreigners is fair game. He objects to spying on Americans talking to foreigners, since he claims it could involve anybody. He claims, “even if it’s you and the guy from Mumbai fixing your printer.” This is not only a false statement, it is deliberately false. The foreign end of the conversation has to be a suspect source, such as a name or a number found on an Al Qaeda laptop, recovered in a safe house north of Baghdad.
The article ends with a quote from the late Senator Moynihan, “Secrecy is for losers.” That sounds a lot like the British Lord in WW I who objected to spying on enemy communications with this comment, “Gentlemen do not read other gentlemen’s mail.” The same quote was repeated by several Americans concerning the creation of the US Office of Strategic Services (the predecessor of the CIA). Apparently, Mr. Alter is blissfully unaware that in WW II, President Roosevelt ordered the opening and reading of ALL mail between the US and any occupied territory abroad. ALL letters, not just selected, suspect ones. Effective intelligence uses many possible sources of gathering foreign information.
In wartime, any competent nation that wants to survive, does that. The US cracked the Japanese naval code. Using that information, we targeted and shot down a plane carrying Admiral Yamamoto, among many other efforts based on intelligence which shortened the war and saved millions of lives.
Alter demonstrates in this column that he is a geopolitical fool. Newsweek demonstrates by publishing it without caveats or warnings, that the magazine’s editors are captives of the Democratic left. They dismiss even those practical Democrats who understand that foreign intelligence saves American lives.
About the Author: John Armor practiced in the US Supreme Court for 33 years. His third of seven books is Manzanar, about the civilian imprisonments in WW II. His latest book will be “These are the times that try men’s souls,” about Thomas Paine. John_Armor@aya,yale.edu He is counsel to the American Civil Rights Union.