Last week I noted that most people are being pretty consistent in how they're reacting to the revelations about NSA spying on your phone records, your Internet surfing, your toenail hygiene practices, and whatever else we're going to learn they've been up to (Glenn Greenwald is promising more revelations). There are some liberals defending it and some conservatives criticizing it, but most people seem to be holding to roughly the same positions they held when George W. Bush initiated these kinds of practices.
Having said that, it's far from black and white. There's a very strong temptation when a controversy like this arises to just step in with your party's official position, but in this case neither party has an official position. Most liberals look to be at odds with a Democratic president, and there is some disagreement on the right between the neo-cons and libertarians despite their mutual dislike of Barack Obama, as Michael Tomasky discusses. Nevertheless, if this were a Republican president, liberals would probably be far more worked up than they are now. Instead of saying "This is troubling," they'd be saying, "This is an outrage!"
Well, if you're looking for a reason to upgrade your anger, consider this: What do you think is going to happen when the next Republican president takes office?
It's often said that no president willingly gives up the powers his predecessors bequeath to him, and Barack Obama has certainly proved that to be true. And you may not want to believe it, but there will be another Republican president, probably pretty soon. If not in 2016, then in 2020 or at the very, very latest 2024. And when President Paul Ryan or whoever takes office and meets with his national security team, what he'll say is, "Let's see here. I can get every American's phone records, I can read their emails, I can send drones out to kill an American citizen anywhere in the world if I decide that person is a threat, and hell, I can even start a little war without bothering to get Congress' permission if I want to. I'll certainly be using these powers with restraint—ha ha!"
And don't forget that when that next Republican president does come along, his administration is going to be stocked to the gills with people who worked for George W. Bush, just because that's how things work in Washington. If you're a Republican seeking to fill those thousands of executive branch positions, the Republicans who have the necessary experience will be Bushies, just as many of the people Obama appointed had worked for Bill Clinton. Dick Cheney himself may not be there (although I suspect that within a few years Cheney will be turned into a horrifying General Grievous-like cyborg11 Though it's true that one of Grievous' only remaining organic parts was his heart, leaving him vulnerable to a well-placed shot from a blaster, and of course that won't be an issue with Cheney, so there might be a place for him). But you can bet that many of the people who carried out Bush and Cheney's instructions will be enthusiastically looking to exploit every ounce of power they have, and a few they don't have but think they might be able to get away with using anyway.
Maybe you feel like you can live with that, and there are enough safeguards in place that even the next Dick Cheney couldn't abuse them too terribly. But the argument of the administration right now is that they're gathering all this information, but they aren't abusing it. They aren't just looking through people's records willy-nilly; mostly all this information is just there waiting, and they look at an individual's records only once they have reason to suspect they might be connected to something fishy. But it isn't because they can't, it's because, they say, they've chosen not to. And that may well be true. But is the next administration, and the one after that, going to do the same? Especially if it's run by people who not too long ago were torturing prisoners; claiming the president had the right to order the arrest of an American citizen on American soil and throw him in jail for life with no charges, no trial, and no access to legal counsel; asserting that the vice president existed in a legal netherworld between the executive and legislative branches that left him immune to any rules or oversight he found inconvenient; and a hundred other abuses of power that we've already almost forgotten by now?
The Bush administration was not some kind of historical aberration that will never be seen again. Its kind will return, and some of its very personnel will return. When that happens, and we see these expanding powers to fight terrorism—which, forgive me for saying over and over again, kills fewer Americans than lightning strikes—being used and expanded with gusto, don't say you didn't see it coming.