Gen. Keith Alexander, director of the National Security Agency, made it abundantly clear Wednesday that he's not much of a civil libertarian. In testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee, he told lawmakers that only by spying on the American people can future terror attacks be thwarted.
"We can't go back to a pre-9/11 moment," said Gen. Alexander, defending the NSA's collection of billions of phone and Internet records from millions of Americans, almost none of whom have even remote ties to terrorists.
The NSA director's appearance on Capitol Hill came as the Senate is considering bipartisan legislation, introduced by Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., that would end the spy agency's bulk collection of phone records.
"Do we really need to collect so much data on Americans?" Mr. Leahy asked Gen. Alexander.
Indeed, said the lawmaker, just as the NSA can secretly gather data on every American, the government could set up checkpoints on every road leading into Washington. "We'd collect hundreds of illegal immigrants," said Mr. Leahy. "We would collect huge amounts of illegal drugs."
But, he continued, "Would we do it? No."
Gen. Alexander, not surprisingly, opposes Mr. Leahy's proposed legislation. Scrapping the NSA's bulk data collection program, the four-star general said, "is absolutely not the right thing to do." He insisted, "There is no other way that we know of to connect the dots."
But what the NSA director is defending is the electronic equivalent of martial law. He is using the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks to justify the effective suspension of the American people's civil liberties, the abrogation of their privacy rights.
We have previously argued that the NSA's electronic surveillance of Americans appears to us to run afoul of the Fourth Amendment, which guarantees "The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects against unreasonable searches."
We continue to believe that it is unreasonable for the NSA to collect the phone records, emails and other communications of U.S. citizens without probable cause that they are somehow involved with terrorism.
And, even with probable cause, NSA surveillance should require a warrant describing what exactly is to be searched — phone records, email, social media account, bank records, whatever.
But that's not how Gen. Alexander thinks the United States government should prosecute the "war on terror." He believes NSA, FBI, CIA, Homeland Security and other such agencies should have what amounts to a general warrant to spy on Americans.
Frankly, the general warrant the NSA director wants is un-American. During the time of this nation's founders, such warrants, known as "writs of assistance," were issued by the British crown, authorizing its officers to conduct unrestricted searches of anyone and everyone, suspected of a crime or not.
The despised writs did much to precipitate the American Revolution. And we think their modern-day equivalent — the general warrant — no less an affront to civil liberty.
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