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William Safire example of wiretapping


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MR. SAFIRE: Lincoln--well, let's come back to Iraq. Let me establish my bona fides before I start criticizing the president for anything. I think this is a noble effort that we're in. I think extending democracy is one of the things that this country is dedicated to, and I think we can actually change the course of history by turning things around in the Middle East. And so that's where I stand on--were we lied to or all that stuff, I push aside and I say we're doing the right thing. Now, go ahead, ask about dissent and wiretapping and like that.


MR. RUSSERT: Go ahead.


MR. SAFIRE: OK. I have a thing about wiretapping.


MS. GOODWIN: A personal thing.


MR. SAFIRE: I was writing a speech on welfare reform, and the president looks at it and says, "OK, I'll go with it, but this is not going to get covered. Leak it as far an wide as you can beforehand. Maybe we'll get something in the paper." And so I go back to my office and I get a call from a reporter, and he wants to know about foreign affairs or something, and I said, "Hey, you want a leak? I'll tell you what the president will say tomorrow about welfare reform." And he took it down and wrote a little story about it. But the FBI was illegally tapping his phone at the time, and so they hear a White House speechwriter say, "Hey, you want a leak?" And so they tapped my phone, and for six months, every home phone call I got was tapped. I didn't like that. And when it finally broke--it did me a lot of good at the time, frankly, because then I was on the right side--but it told me how easy it was to just take somebody who is not really suspected of anything for any good reason and listen to every conversation in his home--you know, my wife talking to her doctor, my--everything.


So I have this thing about personal privacy. And I think what's happening now is that the--as a result of that scandal back in the '70s, we got this electronic eavesdropping act stopping it, or requiring the president to go before this court. Now, this court's a rubber-stamp court, let's face it. They give five noes and 20,000 yeses.


MR. RUSSERT: The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, FISA.


MR. SAFIRE: Right. But the very fact that the FBI has to do a little paperwork beforehand slows them down and makes them think for a minute. It doesn't slow them down as much as the president has made out to believe, because there's a wrinkle in it saying that if it's a real emergency and you have to get this information, then you can get it and get the approval within 72 hours afterwards. So there's always this struggle in a war between liberty and security. Doris, you go into that in your book, and Lincoln did, indeed, suspend habeas corpus, but there it is in the Constitution, "It shall not be suspended except in invasion or a rebellion," so he had the right to. He didn't have the right, I think, to close the Brooklyn Eagle or see the arrest of the leading dissident, Vanlandingham, and he made some mistakes.


But just as FDR later made a mistake with the eight saboteurs and hanged them all, and just as we made a terrible mistake with the Japanese-Americans in World War II and have apologized for that. During wartime, we have this excess of security and afterwards we apologize. And that's why I offended a lot of my conservative and hard-line friends right after September 11th when they started putting these captured combatants in jail, and said the president can't seize dictatorial power. And a lot of my friends looked at me like I was going batty. But now we see this argument over excessive security, and I'm with the critics on that.





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That tap was authorized when though?


That would be when he was a speechwriter for Nixon. And 'authorized' wouldn't quite be the right word back when the FBI was going around tapping everybody and their barbers.


While obviously Safire's analogy wouldn't exactly apply with regard to the current scandal, I could hypothetically see an innocent mosque-goer unknowingly having all of his phone calls--scratch that, all of his international phone calls--tapped, simply because of whom he talks to.


Personally, it wouldn't bother me at all if the NSA were tapping my international phone calls for counterterrorism purposes, though I guess it's easy for me to say that, considering that I never make international calls and very rarely receive them.

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