(HOST) The political uproar over domestic spying has reminded commentator Bill Seamans that terror experts say that one of the major objectives of terrorism is to exploit the apparatus of freedom in liberal societies.
(SEAMANS) At a meeting of top intelligence officials I attended in Israel as far back as 1979 – it was said that a free society must arm itself to meet the threat of terrorism – but that the very process of arming itself against the danger within threatens the freedoms of a civilized country.
It was emphasized that terrorism is a direct and continuous threat to all the protective devices of a free society. If a country’s defen-
sive reaction is mishandled, terrorism then becomes a threat to the rule of law which is necessarily damaged by emergency legislation and special powers.
The part of that conference that has been declassified virtually anticipated – twenty-six years ago – what President Bush said in his TV speech Monday night. The report warned that terrorism is not a purely national problem which can be conquered at a nation-
al level. It is an international offensive – an open and declared war against civilization itself – which can only be defeated by an international alliance of civilized powers.
The problem now is where do we strike a balance between the actions that must be taken to fight terrorism and minimizing the erosion of civil rights caused by the intelligence weapons we need to penetrate the secrecy of the terrorism world. When Congress gets settled into the New Year we can expect a great debate over where that balance point should be.
At issue is oversight – that is just how much control Congress has over highly sensitive and perhaps controversial actions by the White House. President Bush in his radio address Saturday confirmed that he had secretly ordered electronic eavesdropping in the United States without obtaining warrants from the special court that oversees intelligence actions and without congressional approval. Also, Bush declared that he would continue to do so because, he said, “It was a vital tool in our war against the terrorists.” This was seen by Bush’s critics as taking the law into his own hands.
The question now is, can Bush continue to bypass the warrants and continue to avoid seeking the approval of congressional oversight. Echoing the problem foreseen by that 1979 intelligence briefing Patrick Leahy, the ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee said, “Our government must follow the laws and respect the Constitution while it protects our security and liberty.” Senator Arlen Specter, the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said he would hold oversight hearings so we can expect a perhaps historic debate over what powers the President has to fight the terrorism threat – a question of national security that could go all the way up to the Supreme Court.
This is Bill Seamans.
Bill Seamans is a former correspondent and bureau chief for ABC News in the Middle East. He spoke from our studio in Norwich.