Standing on the deck of the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln last week, George W. Bush declared the Iraq war largely over. It was a majestic occasion even if you knew that its majesty had been carefully stage-managed. Bush, who had just the right windswept-but-presidential look, had apparently even taken the controls for part of the flight from San Diego to the Lincoln. The White House could hardly have done more to ensure a big audience; the speech interrupted that hallowed American tradition called Friends. The central purpose of all the pageantry was to soothe us: We're winning the war on terrorism, the worst is over, let's get back to work.
But on the very day that Bush was declaring provisional victory over Baghdad, a notable skirmish in another war was quietly under way in Washington. This is a war without daily briefings by self-assured Bush men and women. It's the war over how to make America safer without turning it into a police state--how to mediate the difficult conflict between security and liberty. And this war is far from over.
On Thursday, Democrats on the Senate Intelligence Committee defeated a White House attempt to give the CIA and the Pentagon new and unusual authority to investigate U.S. citizens. It would have been the first time in U.S. history that these two institutions were openly authorized to probe into the lives of Americans. In a closed-door meeting of the Intelligence Committee, Democrats rejected a measure that would have allowed the CIA and the Pentagon to issue "national security letters" requiring Internet providers, credit-card companies and other institutions to cough up the personal and financial records of their customers. Says a U.S. intelligence official: "Periodically since 9/11, the folks on the Hill have asked, 'Geez, what kind of authorities would make your job easier?' And so that proposal was proposed."
The war on terrorism may be launching a legal revolution in America. The changes pose these questions: How necessary are some of the reforms? Have John Ashcroft and the Justice Department unraveled constitutional protections in trying to ensure our safety? "There is a significant civil-liberties price to be paid as we adopt various national-security initiatives," says Mary Jo White, a former U.S. Attorney in the Southern District of New York, whose office pursued some of the biggest terrorism cases of the 1990s. "For the most part, I think that price is necessary. But what I worry about is government officials who find the answers too easy in this arena."
None of the answers are simple. Who wouldn't have authorized an extra wiretap or a longer detention if it could have prevented 9/11, but who knows how far to go? As the demands of security bump up against the safeguards of personal liberty, clashes have been breaking out around the country over where to draw the line. Librarians are alerting visitors that their Internet surfing or book borrowing may be monitored by the government. Nearly 100 towns and counties, plus the state of Hawaii, have passed resolutions condemning the USA Patriot Act, the post-9/11 law that greatly expanded federal powers to conduct the war on terrorism.