With the recent nomination of the Air Force General in charge of the NSA's domestic spying program and today's revelation that the NSA has been building a database of EVERY SINGLE CALL made in the US since 9/11, is this the fight Karl Rove hopes to pick with Democrats? It could end up a fight to the death.
Polls consistently show the President tanking with the American people in every aspect but one: national security (and that is wavering). Unnamed White House sources are quoted all the time as saying they'll gladly take the domestic spying fight as they think it's one they'll win with the American public. And why shouldn't they? On the surface (and that's all that matters anymore), it's an easy case to make to a public still scared of another terrorist attack. And there are always those who say, "If you're not doing anything wrong, then this program shouldn't worry you." That argument may send privacy and Fourth Amendment rights advocates through the ceiling, but most of the American Idol watching public couldn't care less. Despite Benjamin Franklin's warning that those who would give up their freedom for safety deserve neither, most of this country is perfectly happy to do just that—and Rove knows it.
You have to wonder if there's a limit though and if the President is treading mighty close to that edge with the latest report that the NSA has been gathering information on domestic calls? That might be a bit much for even the least political among us to stomach. I think most Americans still have an expectation of privacy and the mere idea of a shadowy government agency (whether that description fits or not) gathering information on citizens who clearly have no connections to terrorists or enemy agents puts people on edge.
Politically, this opens a door for critics of the domestic spying program. So far, it's been hard to discuss the program in a way that simply and clearly illustrates the privacy concerns—nevermind the constitutional issues. The idea that the President of the United States can simply ignore a law that clearly says he can NOT do exactly what he's authorized the NSA to do has fallen on the deaf ears of the public because they've seen it as a small price to pay for the privacy they've lost but not felt. Add to that the President's nonsensical claim that "some people" don't think we should be monitoring the calls of the enemy and he's muddied the waters so much that regular folks would sooner defer to his judgement than think about what all of this really means. But widespread collection of information is easy to understand and given the spate of identity thefts and various other high profile privacy intrusions, this might just be an issue that actually reverberates.
There's also news today that Justice Department lawyers assigned to investigate the program have been denied the security clearance necessary to do so. This smacks of Nixon's Saturday Night Massacre when that doomed President tried to shut down the Watergate investigation by firing Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox. So much for democracy requiring an open government...
And so President Bush seems to be picking his fight. It's a fight he's won before but the stakes are raised with control of Congress and his legacy in the balance. Desperate men will do desperate things but if things don't work out in his favor and the public finally gets it, we may soon be writing his political epitaph--two and a half years before he even leaves office.