Sunday, July 13, 2008

July 10

A friend who reads this column sent me a story by Los Angeles Times writer Jim Puzzanghera about an instance of the government's invading our privacy that I hadn't heard of: seizing, without a warrant, the personal computers of people - American citizens included - entering the U.S. from abroad.

The story quotes a man named Bill Hogan, returning home, who was told his computer had been chosen for "random inspection." He got it back some two weeks later and said, correctly, "It's not an inspection; it's a seizure." Senator Russ Feingold, a Wisconsin Democrat, said, "Congress should not allow this gross violation of privacy." But it does. Courts have ruled that authorities need a search warrant to get at a computer in your home, but not when you're crossing a border.

In a related area, the Senate voted this week on a bill covering wiretaps. It says the government needs a warrant to tap your phone, but with exceptions. It creates a seven-day period during which the feds could wiretap foreigners without a warrant, and expands from three days to seven the time during which warrantless wiretaps on Americans are legal if, of course, the Attorney General certifies there is probable cause to think the target is linked to terrorism. But probable cause, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.

The Fourth Amendment to the Constitution reads: "The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue but upon probable cause...." Mr. Bush, of course, doesn't think he needs warrants at all, that in wartime the president can do whatever he likes.

This is wrong, as even a casual reading of the Constitution will show. Richard Nixon once famously said that if the president did it, it wasn't illegal. That was wrong, and it's why Mr. Nixon never finished his second term. He wiretapped White House aides without warrants and sent burglars to dig up dirt on an opponent.

Is there a moral in this? Probably, it's that when we go to war, we must fight two wars at once--one against the enemy, the other to defend the civil liberties which make our country worth fighting for.

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