Around the White House, an abrupt change in the President's public schedule is known as an "audible," and generally, it's just about the last thing anyone wants to suggest to a boss so allergic to disruption that he makes people turn off their cell phones when he is in the room. But last week, when USA Today broke a story that the government has been secretly keeping track of the phone calls that tens of millions of ordinary Americans are making each day, it was George W. Bush who proposed an impromptu appearance before the television cameras. "I want to say something about this myself," he told aides who had gathered in the Oval Office to figure out how to handle the sensation the story was causing across Washington. To reporters, Bush offered no denial, or even much by way of explanation. "The intelligence activities I authorized are lawful," he said, without specifying which laws in particular had authorized them. And he added, "So far, we've been very successful in preventing another attack on our soil."
There was a time--say, four years and nine months ago--when news that the government had been gathering up the country's phone records might have been the making of a scandal, or even a constitutional crisis. But although there have been protests from civil libertarians and some criticism on Capitol Hill, early indications suggest the revelation could actually give a political boost to a President who hasn't had many of those lately. The day after USA Today broke the story that the National Security Agency (NSA) aimed to "create a database of every call ever made" within the U.S., as one of the paper's sources put it, a Washington Post--ABC News poll found that 63% of those asked said they found the NSA program to be an acceptable way to fight terrorism, and 44% said they strongly approved of it. More than half those polled--51%--said they also favor how Bush is handling the question of privacy, which puts his standing on that issue nearly 20 points higher than his overall job-approval rating these days.
Democrats and some Republicans complained that Bush had not been as forthcoming as they would have liked about the mysterious program, which has been under way since 2001--with information provided by the nation's three largest phone companies--and has produced what is reported to be the largest such database ever. But while lawmakers vowed closer oversight--with Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Arlen Specter announcing that he would summon the heads of the three phone companies to testify, under subpoena if necessary--few politicians went so far as to say that Bush should not have done it.
There are plenty of reasons people might accept that the government could have a record of every time they call their mother, their doctor or their paramour. Maybe 9/11 put security above all the country's other values. Maybe, as the reality-television craze suggests, most citizens don't cherish privacy as much as civil libertarians do. Or maybe Americans figure that if Verizon and Ma Bell can keep track of whom they call--and that, in exchange for a discount card, Safeway gets to compile a database of what they eat and Barnes & Noble of what they read--there's not much harm if the government knows as well.