NSA surveillance and the contrapositive

In applied mathematics, there is a technique of proving a theorem called 'taking the contrapositive.'  When you take the contrapositive, you don't prove that the theorem is true, you demonstrate that the consequences of its being untrue are impossible.  Perhaps surprisingly, this technique makes many proofs much simpler then they otherwise would be.

We can apply this to the NSA anti—terrorist wiretaps.  President Bush's political opponents and some civil libertarians are upset that he approved wiretaps without a court order.  AT and other blogs have already demonstrated that doing so is (a) well within the letter of the law and (b) is in accord with practices of previous presidents.  But for those still not convinced, let's try the contrapositive:

President Bush receives information from the NSA or the CIA or the FBI or some other source that a conversation is very likely to be carried on between a suspected terrorist and a foreign source.  Suppose the President does not approve this wiretap, or, what amounts to the same thing, suppose he applies to a FISA judge for a court order and the order is refused.  What does President Bush do then? 

Does he do nothing, which is the position of the civil libertarians?  That does not seem satisfactory given the capabilities and objectives of our enemies.  Remember that nukes can be as small as suitcases these days and that several nukes going off in several cities could very severely damage, perhaps cripple, the country. 

President Bush has taken an oath which exists independently of any court 'to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution against all enemies foreign and domestic.'  Can this oath, this responsibility, be delegated?  No. And we don't want it to be. A judge is a minor appointed official. The president is the senior elected official and the commander in chief of the armed forces.  It is clear, once this contrapositive is used — the alternative wherein President Bush does nothing — that it is not an acceptable alternative.

Civil libertarians will say that this is the initial edge of the wedge to destroy our rights and implement totalitarianism.  This represents a confusion about the situation we face.  All democracies have distinguished between an assault on the polity from outside and the normal operation of the polity from within.  In normal civil operations, we have legal and procedural safeguards to protect our civil liberties.  Indeed, we are willing to have a guilty person go free if the proper procedures have not been followed. 

But in an assault on the polity from outside, conditions and risks are different.  And, yes, we have to give up some of our civil safeguards to meet it. That we need to do so is not the least of the outrages that our enemies inflict on us.  But all democracies in history have observed this distinction. 

The term 'dictator' comes from the Roman Republic where a dictator was appointed for a 6—month period to rule the republic by decree during a period of military emergency (thus the Roman meaning was different from the present totalitarian meaning).  The British have the Defense of the Realm Act, which was passed in 1914 and in 1940.  Its working part says that everyone residing in the UK must 'put their persons, their services and their property at the disposal of His Majesty' for the duration of the war.  In other words, the government can commandeer people's homes, can direct where and how they work and can require service to the state simply by direction of the prime minister. 

Abraham Lincoln conceived his responsibility to preserve the Constitution as overriding all other considerations.  He ignored rulings from Chief Justice Taney that he thought were not in the best interests of the country and he suspended habeas corpus, meaning he could throw people in jail indefinitely — which he proceeded to do.  The declaration of war in World Wars I and II were understood to give the President authority over the economy and the ability to conduct whatever security operations he deemed necessary, including incarcerating ethnic Japanese American citizens in World War II.

The need for a democracy to distinguish between the normal operation of civil affairs and the extraordinary powers that must be exercised when the polity is under threat is a very well trod path, both legally and historically.  President Bush is traveling well within the confines of that path. 

In applied mathematics, there is a technique of proving a theorem called 'taking the contrapositive.'  When you take the contrapositive, you don't prove that the theorem is true, you demonstrate that the consequences of its being untrue are impossible.  Perhaps surprisingly, this technique makes many proofs much simpler then they otherwise would be.

We can apply this to the NSA anti—terrorist wiretaps.  President Bush's political opponents and some civil libertarians are upset that he approved wiretaps without a court order.  AT and other blogs have already demonstrated that doing so is (a) well within the letter of the law and (b) is in accord with practices of previous presidents.  But for those still not convinced, let's try the contrapositive:

President Bush receives information from the NSA or the CIA or the FBI or some other source that a conversation is very likely to be carried on between a suspected terrorist and a foreign source.  Suppose the President does not approve this wiretap, or, what amounts to the same thing, suppose he applies to a FISA judge for a court order and the order is refused.  What does President Bush do then? 

Does he do nothing, which is the position of the civil libertarians?  That does not seem satisfactory given the capabilities and objectives of our enemies.  Remember that nukes can be as small as suitcases these days and that several nukes going off in several cities could very severely damage, perhaps cripple, the country. 

President Bush has taken an oath which exists independently of any court 'to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution against all enemies foreign and domestic.'  Can this oath, this responsibility, be delegated?  No. And we don't want it to be. A judge is a minor appointed official. The president is the senior elected official and the commander in chief of the armed forces.  It is clear, once this contrapositive is used — the alternative wherein President Bush does nothing — that it is not an acceptable alternative.

Civil libertarians will say that this is the initial edge of the wedge to destroy our rights and implement totalitarianism.  This represents a confusion about the situation we face.  All democracies have distinguished between an assault on the polity from outside and the normal operation of the polity from within.  In normal civil operations, we have legal and procedural safeguards to protect our civil liberties.  Indeed, we are willing to have a guilty person go free if the proper procedures have not been followed. 

But in an assault on the polity from outside, conditions and risks are different.  And, yes, we have to give up some of our civil safeguards to meet it. That we need to do so is not the least of the outrages that our enemies inflict on us.  But all democracies in history have observed this distinction. 

The term 'dictator' comes from the Roman Republic where a dictator was appointed for a 6—month period to rule the republic by decree during a period of military emergency (thus the Roman meaning was different from the present totalitarian meaning).  The British have the Defense of the Realm Act, which was passed in 1914 and in 1940.  Its working part says that everyone residing in the UK must 'put their persons, their services and their property at the disposal of His Majesty' for the duration of the war.  In other words, the government can commandeer people's homes, can direct where and how they work and can require service to the state simply by direction of the prime minister. 

Abraham Lincoln conceived his responsibility to preserve the Constitution as overriding all other considerations.  He ignored rulings from Chief Justice Taney that he thought were not in the best interests of the country and he suspended habeas corpus, meaning he could throw people in jail indefinitely — which he proceeded to do.  The declaration of war in World Wars I and II were understood to give the President authority over the economy and the ability to conduct whatever security operations he deemed necessary, including incarcerating ethnic Japanese American citizens in World War II.

The need for a democracy to distinguish between the normal operation of civil affairs and the extraordinary powers that must be exercised when the polity is under threat is a very well trod path, both legally and historically.  President Bush is traveling well within the confines of that path.