THE BLOG
02/07/2006 12:13 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Of course al Qaeda is smiling -- they don't get it. Do the Bushies?

Defending the administration's decision to listen to American citizens' phone calls, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales evoked the image of the hearings providing comfort to the nation's enemies.

"Our enemy is listening, and I cannot help but wonder if they aren't shaking their heads in amazement that anyone would imperil such a sensitive program," Gonzales admonished the committee, according to The Washington Post's excellent Dana Milbank. "How can anyone conclude that it is not necessary and appropriate to intercept al Qaeda phone calls?"

First the first part. Of course any attentive al Qaeda operatives were shaking their heads at yesterday's display: They don't get it. They don't get concepts like freedom and liberty. They view such notions as American and western weaknesses which they can exploit. But they're wrong -- freedom and liberty are our strengths.

If that sounds Bush-like, then shame on Democrats for letting him trademark the concepts for his party.

Here's the broader problem: The terrorists don't "get it" -- but do Bush and his administration? By citing the terrorist reaction -- shaking their heads in disbelief at such a display -- Gonzales implicitly validates it. The al Qaeda operatives are shaking their little evil-doer heads, he's saying, and they're right -- this display is weakening us.

But this display is us. This is freedom and liberty in action -- one branch of government checking (on) the other to make sure that it is not robbing the concepts we hope to spread abroad of their meaning at home.

Freedom and liberty are more than simply rhetorical flourishes. And despite what Bush and his ideological supporters think they are neither a natural state nor an unstoppable historical tide. They must be fought for and closely guarded. Simply deposing a tyrannical government abroad, for example, does not guarantee that freedom and liberty will naturally flow in to fill the void (which is why if you decide to depose a tyrannical dictator abroad, you should probably plan out the next steps as well).

Domestically, freedom and liberty are not luxuries that we should foresake in a "time of war" -- especially if that war is an ill-defined and open-ended. (Note: The 9/11 terrorists were evil; al Qeda is evil; they should be expunged from the planet; but they do not pose a direct threat to the nation's existence in the same way as, say, the Civil War or World War Two.) Far from peacetime extravagances -- or as our enemies would have us believe -- weaknesses, freedom and liberty are hard-fought rights that must be exercised lest they atrophy. Put them on a shelf so that we can defend them and we risk leaving them there.

"We are not going hog wild restraining American liberties," Sen. Jeff Sessions, the Alabama Republican said during the heairng. But the danger is not a declaration of martial law tomorrow, it's the long-term erosion of liberty and freedom into oblivion in the future.

Of course my problem here is that I am taking the attorney general seriously. The quote cited above was pure politics, as illustrated by its second statement: "How can anyone conclude that it is not necessary and appropriate to intercept al Qaeda phone calls?" As Milbank points out in the Post, no serious people have reached that conclusion. Gonzales knows that, as do the GOP leaders and officials who spout the same talking point. The issue is that they are trying to define the terms of the debate -- if they can make it about whether it is appropriate to try to stop terrorists, the GOP wins. If the debate is defined as whether the administration broke laws in trying to achieve that end, the GOP could be in trouble.

Note what Gonzales actually would say about the program: Bush only authorized warrantless wiretaps of calls in which one party was overseas, Gonzales said. "If the president had authorized domestic surveillance as well, even though we're talking about al Qaeda-to-a Qaeda, I think the reaction would have been twice as great. And so there was a judgment made that this was the appopriate line to draw."

In other words, Gonzales flatly refused to discus the program's scope, duration, or nature -- except when it makes his boss look good.