WASHINGTON — I depart America for two blissful weeks in Italy and return to find that my country has been transformed, rather rudely, into a totalitarian state on the order of Iran, possibly even North Korea. My telephone is directly plugged into something called “Prism.” Big Brother hounds my email even when I am only viewing the weather. Soon I shall be wearing a Mao jacket — or perhaps not. Possibly my fears are overheated. Yet President Barack Obama got us into this mess, and it is unlikely that he will get us out. He seems smugly unconcerned about the fears of almost 50 percent of the American people who, I adjudge, are almost as worried as I am.
Consider recent news stories that have nothing to do with “Prism,” the National Security Agency, or my fears. Consider the claim that the Internal Revenue Service has been molesting people of faith, members of the conservative movement, and stalwarts of the Tea Party movement. Consider that the Justice Department has been subpoenaing journalists’ work. Countless news stories on these matters have made many Americans a little edgy. Then came this thunderbolt. Some dimwit associated with the NSA project or the CIA has leaked to the Guardian and to the Washington Post evidence that the government of the United States has been eavesdropping on the Internet communications and the telephone calls of all Americans and especially of foreigners for evidence of terrorist plots. Barack Obama could not have orchestrated an outbreak of paranoia on a national scale any more effectively. First came the stories about the IRS and the subpoenaing of journalists. Then came this NSA story. Barack, you have only yourself to blame on this one, not George W., not even Richard Nixon. This wave of suspicion that has swept the country was achieved only by you and your maladroit administration assisted by a thousand or so loyal facilitators in the relevant government departments and agencies.
Fortunately, before I gave up my citizenship and returned to Italy I picked up the indispensable Wall Street Journal, and there on the op-ed page was an illuminating essay by one of my favorite civil libertarians, Michael Mukasey, Eric Holder’s predecessor as U.S. attorney general as well as a former U.S. district judge for the Southern District of New York. Mukasey has reassured me that the NSA’s actions have merit, though they could still go too far. Since the ghastly attack of 9/11 there are real threats to our freedoms and our safety. Government has thwarted further 9/11 attacks and has led to the arrest of others, for instance, Najibullah Zazi, the would-be New York City subway bomber.
The government eavesdropping is conducted according to the law. Nothing that has been done thus far is illegal. And the rights of the citizenry have been protected. “Given the nature of the data being collected,” writes Mukasey, “and the relatively small number and awful responsibility of those who do the collecting, the claims of pervasive spying, even if sincere, appear not merely exaggerated but downright irrational.” Well, I part company with Mukasey here. Given the nature of the IRS scandal and of the Justice Department’s hassling of journalists, there are grounds for our suspicion.
Yet Mukasey is convincing, though I wish he had taken up the question of the dimwit who was the Guardian’s and the Post’s source. His name is Edward J. Snowden, and today he is trying to pass himself off as a modern-day Daniel Ellsberg. I say of him as I said years ago of Ellsberg. Throw the book at him. He has endangered the security of the country.