There was something missing from the full-page advertisement that the American Civil Liberties Union ran in newspapers
around the country last week.
The ad kicked off an ACLU campaign called "Don't Spy On Me," which is aimed at pressuring federal and state regulators
into investigating the phone companies that supplied domestic call records to federal intelligence analysts.
Subtle the ad wasn't. "IF YOU'VE USED A TELEPHONE IN THE LAST FIVE YEARS, READ THIS," shouted the
headline in end-of-the-world-sized type. "AT&T, Verizon, and other phone companies may have illegally sent your phone
records to the National Security Agency." The ad went on to charge that "millions of Americans" have had "their privacy
invaded" by an "illegal secret arrangement" that allows "instant government access to every single phone call." It raised the
alarming specter of Bush administration officials prying not only into the phone records of "political opponents, news reporters,
and potential whistle blowers," but even into your calls to "friends, family, associates, lovers."
"Stop this abuse of power now," the advertisement urged. "File a complaint." Readers were directed to the new "Don't Spy
On Me" page at the ACLU web site, where they can sign a petition telling the Federal Communications Commission to "get the
spies off the line."
You would never know from all this heavy breathing that the data supplied to the NSA consisted of phone numbers only,
stripped of any identifying names or addresses. Or that the calls themselves weren't actually monitored no one was
wiretapping any conversations. Or that the Supreme Court has ruled that the government doesn't need a warrant to collect
phone records, since information voluntarily disclosed to a third party (such as the phone company) isn't protected by the
Perhaps the ACLU would dismiss those facts. Perhaps it would say they don't change the central issue that the collection
of this calling data represents a government encroachment into private behavior, with all the possibilities for abuse that entails.
But something even more important was omitted from the ACLU's ad something so crucial to this issue that only an
organization suffering from acute moral myopia could ignore it:
Nowhere in its advertisement does the ACLU make any mention of terrorism or Sept. 11, or of the horrific price we paid
that day for failing to "connect the dots" before the terrorists could strike. Nowhere does the ad acknowledge that we are at
war with the forces of radical Islam, or that the jihadists have been able to murder thousands of innocent people by infiltrating
free societies and attacking them from within. The ACLU is passionate about protecting Americans' privacy; it says nothing
about protecting American lives. How can an organization committed to civil liberties simply disregard the threat posed to the
foremost civil liberty of all? Before blasting the government for data-mining through anonymous telephone records, shouldn't it
at least consider whether doing so has prevented any attacks or saved any lives?
It isn't just the ACLU's advertising that provides no context for the phone-records controversy. The ACLU's web site also
appears to provide none. There is no mention of counterterrorism on its home page or on its "Don't Spy On Me" page. There
is, however, an animated movie featuring an intrepid hero who charges, "Someone has been secretly spying on us tapping
our phones, reading our e-mails, tracking every move we make." Naturally, the eavesdropping villains turn out to be George
Bush and Dick Cheney.
To anti-Bush partisans, the administration cannot possibly have any legitimate interest in domestic telephone records, and it
was an outrage for Verizon, BellSouth, and AT&T to have supplied them. "We cannot sit by while the government and the
phone companies collude in this massive, illegal, and fundamentally un-American invasion of our privacy," the ACLU's
executive director, Anthony Romero, thundered last week. Funny that wasn't the way he spoke 18 months ago, when the
ACLU itself was discovered to be using sophisticated data-mining to secretly amass information about its own members and
donors. (Some ACLU board members were shocked by the revelation and publicly condemned it. "It is a violation of our
values," board member Wendy Kaminer said at the time. "It is hypocrisy.") To be sure, the two cases are very different. The
ACLU's data-mining was part of a fund-raising effort. The NSA's is part of the war effort.
Earlier this month, a British parliamentary committee issued its report on the terrorist attacks in London last July, and on
what if anything could have been done to prevent them. It reached the obvious conclusion: "If we seek greater assurance
against the possibility of attacks, some increase in intrusive activity by the UK's intelligence and security agencies is . . .
inevitable." There is always some tradeoff between civil liberty and national security, and the point at which they balance is not
fixed. Reasonable people understand what the ACLU seems to have forgotten: Before you can connect the dots, you have to