All new threats entail huge uncertainties. Then, as now, there was a pronounced tendency to assume the worst, and for the government to claim enormous discretion in protecting the American public. The Bush administration has consistently argued that it needs to be protected from Congressional oversight and media scrutiny. An example is the National Security Agency’s warrantless surveillance of telephone traffic into and out of the United States. Rather than going to Congress and trying to negotiate changes to the law that regulates such activities, the administration simply grabbed that authority for itself, saying, in effect, ‘Trust us: if you knew what we know about the threat, you’d be perfectly happy to have us do what we’re doing.â€ In other areas, like the holding of prisoners in GuantÃ¡namo and interrogation methods used there and in the Middle East, one can only quote Moynihan on an earlier era: ‘As fears of Communist conspiracies and German subversion mounted, it was the U.S. government’s conduct that approached the illegal.â€
Even if we do not at this juncture know the full scope of the threat we face from jihadist terrorism, it is certainly large enough to justify many changes in the way we conduct our lives, both at home and abroad. But the American government does have a track record in dealing with similar problems in the past, one suggesting that all American institutions â€” Congress, the courts, the news media â€” need to do their jobs in scrutinizing official behavior, and not take the easy way out of deferring to the executive. Past experience also suggests that the government would do far better to make public what it knows, as well as the limits of that knowledge, if we are to arrive at a balanced view of the challenges we face today.