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Who’s Afraid of Big Brother?

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Chuck Schumer ripped the Bush administration on the Senate floor after the secret domestic-spying program was exposed in the Times (and the paper has done a fabulous job of telling the NSA story, even if its public editor doesn’t like the timing). Yet Schumer acknowledges the necessity of a robust—and legal—wiretapping operation. “We need these tactics,” Schumer says. “And most Americans would concede that in a time of the war on terror, maybe the rules have to change to an extent. But you don’t do it by fiat.”

The NSA fiasco should be a warning to Ray Kelly about how popularity and unchecked power can lead to overreaching.

George W. Bush, as usual, wants to blame the press, saying that national security has been compromised by leaks about the NSA program. That’s pathetic. Everything leaks in Washington eventually, and it’s Bush who has created a far larger and more embarrassing story—sure to be kept alive in televised congressional hearings—by trying to keep the warrantless wiretap program completely clandestine and blatantly lying about adhering to standard court-order procedure. “If the administration had simply gone to Congress and quietly explained what they wanted to do three years ago, the leaders probably would have signed off, perhaps with some modifications,” says Bob Kerrey, the former soldier, senator, and member of the 9/11 Commission. “It’s very difficult to imagine they wouldn’t. And Bush would have avoided all this mess.”

So this is all good for the Democrats, right? Not likely. Call Bush, Dick Cheney, and Karl Rove evil geniuses if you want, but they know that most Americans still choose the promise of physical security over abstractions about privacy. “If you define the issue as civil liberties versus the war on terrorism,” says Democratic strategist Mark Mellman, “we probably lose the argument.”

Especially since the Bush administration hasn’t been spying on Howard Dean—at least not that we know of yet. This isn’t Watergate. Yet two of the presumed 2008 Democratic presidential contenders wasted no time stepping into the soft-on-terror trap. “Outrageous,” fumed Wisconsin senator Russ Feingold. “Lame,” jabbed Massachusetts senator John Kerry.

Feingold and Kerry are aiming squarely for the antiwar vote. There is one likely presidential aspirant, however, who seems to understand that the Democrats are still saddled with the stereotype that they’re wimps on national security. Senator Hillary Clinton’s reaction to the domestic-spying revelations has been considerably more muted. In her written statement explaining why she was voting to temporarily extend the Patriot Act instead of renewing it, Clinton mentioned that she is “troubled by recent reports” regarding domestic spying. In late December, Clinton sent an e-mail fund-raising message to supporters that included “A secret program that spies on Americans!” in her list of “disagreements” with Bush. Bill Clinton once said that Americans prefer a president who is “strong and wrong” to one who is “weak and right.” Apparently his wife didn’t need any fancy bugs to hear the message.

Another local figure would be wise to pay attention to what’s going on in Washington right now. The NSA fiasco should be a warning to Ray Kelly about how popularity and unchecked power can lead to overreaching. Kelly is light-years ahead of Bush and Cheney when it comes to managerial openness and regard for civil liberties. He’s done a fantastic job of protecting New York for four years, so he’s largely been given a pass for the NYPD’s excesses, particularly during the Republican convention, when nearly 2,000 people were summarily arrested and stashed in a far West Side bus depot turned holding pen.

Now videotapes have surfaced showing undercover cops masquerading as Critical Mass bike riders last April. The episode is more silly than sinister—burly, buzz-cut white guys in NFL jerseys wouldn’t seem to be the best “infiltrators” to dispatch to an anarchist pedal through Chelsea—but it generates unnecessary doubts about the NYPD. New Yorkers have invested a vast amount of trust in the police commissioner. Kelly’s great test for the next four years will be keeping the city safe without abusing that faith. Then he, like Jim Comey, can land a lucrative private job with his soul intact.

E-mail: Chris_Smith@nymag.com


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