Our Damned Business
This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
Senator Rand Paul electrified the CPAC conference with his speech in respect of the Fourth Amendment. He delivered one of his patented lectures on constitutional fundamentals, ranging from William Lloyd Garrison to Pink Floyd. What is so attractive about Dr. Paul, as about his father, is that he thinks constantly in constitutional terms. He comprehends that by enumerating the grants of power to Congress the Constitution limits them. He grasps the point about separated powers. He understands that the methodology by which the Constitution protects our rights is by laying restrictions on government. He gets the monetary issue down to the ground, as his famous father does.
It strikes us that he hit an off note, though, with his biggest applause line at CPAC, the one about how “as our voices rise in protest” the National Security Agency is monitoring our every phone call. He is right as rain, in our opinion, about general warrants and how unconstitutional they are. He is doing a great service by harping on the point when he sets up his criticism of the NSA. The part that rings wrong to us is the part where he declared, “I believe what you do on your cell phone is none of their damned business.” It brought the audience to its feet, for sure, but our guess is that those clapping were not in Manhattan watching the towers come down on 9/11.
One doesn’t have to dip too far into the news coverage of the raid in Abbottabad to discern the centrality of cell phone intercepts to finding Osama bin Laden. “A gaping security hole” in the defenses of the al-Qaeda leader is the way the use of cell phones by bin Laden’s camarilla was described by officials quoted by NBC News. Five cell phones were reportedly seized just from individuals inside bin Laden’s compound. Maybe there’s something wrong with us, but we’re among those for whom the fact that NSA computers are sifting through the metadata to find those cell phones for the purpose of breaking up terror plots is a source not of disquiet but of comfort.
We don’t suggest that war automatically, or even manually, sweeps aside the constitutional niceties. But we actually do have confidence in the judges of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, to which Senator Paul objects. They know all about the prohibition on general warrants, and they have the Supreme Court over them. Much is being made by critics of the fact that the court conducts its hearings in secret and that only the government lawyer is present during the requesting of a warrant. But even in a regular, civilian court, the request and issuance of a warrant is not an adversarial process, at which the man or woman about to be arrested, or searched, is present. Otherwise, they’d vamoose.
In marking this point we don’t mean to suggest we’re athwart the libertarians in their constitutional critique. We find it one of the most thrilling features of the current campaign, and we see Senator Paul as one of its heroes. All the more reason not to get on the wrong side of this war. We are in an age when war is being fought with technologies undreamed of in revolutionary times. So it’s doubly important to pay attention to the Constitution’s timeless truths. George Washington, who presided at the very convention at which the Constitution was written, might have found it hard to imagine digitization of the world. But not to imagine the need for secrecy and the value of intelligence in a time of war.