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Unknown Unknowns

(Reprinted from SOBRANS, April-May 2006, page 1)
When President Bush confirmed that he’d authorized the National Security Agency to conduct an enormous secret program to monitor Americans’ telephone calls, as reported in USA Today, I assumed that this remarkably unpopular president had finally taken a fatal step too far. Now the American public, already revolted by this administration’s blunders, crimes, lies, scandals, domestic surveillance, deficits, et cetera, would roar “Enough!”

It soon appeared not. In fact, a poll the day after the story appeared found that most Americans, including many who generally disapprove of Bush’s job performance, accepted the program as a legitimate “national security” measure to contain terrorism.

As Bush told it, no laws were broken, the Constitution wasn’t violated, no calls were wiretapped without court orders. The NSA was merely studying patterns of phone calls in the records of three major phone companies (a fourth refused to cooperate).

Innocent people, in short, had nothing to fear. A huge, shadowy government agency, known to most of us only by its initials (not to be confused with the National Security Council, mark you), was merely exercising, without telling us, another power we didn’t know about. That power isn’t authorized by the Constitution, but it isn’t forbidden by it either, and the U.S. Supreme Court has permitted similar things in the past, under certain conditions, which are being scrupulously observed by the NSA. Possible abuses aren’t worth worrying about.

Big government is just a wee bit bigger than we knew, that’s all. But then, we’re also more secure than we knew. No telling how many terrorist plots the NSA has foiled! And no telling how much it has cost the taxpayer to collect untold volumes of useless information. But that’s not for us to know either.

This is the lead article to the April-May 2006 
issue, Unknown Unknowns -- Read Joe's columns the day he writes 
them.As long as most of us support our government, that’s what counts. And of course we do support it, without knowing quite what it is now. We are assured it’s a democracy, responding to our needs (as it defines them) and under our control.

What? Your civics teacher didn’t explain this to you? Well, the old civics books may be a little out of date. As Donald Rumsfeld has explained, there are some things about our enemies that are known, and some that are unknown, and the latter can be further broken down into the known unknowns and the unknown unknowns.

I suppose the same is true about our rulers. We know a lot about what they do, and we also realize that a lot more than we know is concealed from us. In the case of the NSA it happens that some of the unknown unknowns have come to light. But countless unknowns remain.

The film United 93 is being hailed for showing and celebrating the courage of the passengers on a hijacked airliner on September 11, 2001, who immediately fought back against the terrorists. But who will fight back against those who have hijacked our country?

Joseph Sobran

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