Should presidents snoop on us like God does?
God overhears every word we utter, my Sunday school teachers taught me. We sang a favorite chorus reminding us that God eavesdrops on our conversations. “Be careful little ears what you hear. For the Father up above is looking down in love, so be careful little ears what you hear.” A distressed believer gained composure by reminding himself that God listens to his complaints and gets an earful from his sorrows. “Depart from me, all you workers of evil; for the Lord has heard the sound of my weeping. The Lord has heard my supplication; the Lord accepts my prayer” (Psalm 6:8).Some presidents seem jealous of God’s talent for listening in on our conversations. They want to possess this ability to snoop, also. The president and his military advisors demand the authority to tap phones. They desire to eavesdrop on overseas calls to the U.S. from suspected terrorists. It’s less cumbersome monitoring clandestine calls without first seeking a court warrant for every phone number tracked. Nazi muscle loomed overseas in 1939. These terrorists might cross the Atlantic Ocean and spy within the United States. Our government feared that undercover German agents might plant bombs in metropolitan areas, killing citizens. Wanting to fend off such a calamity, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt leaned on Attorney General Robert H. Jackson to authorized wire tapping without first getting court approval. Terrorists might strike before a methodical court okayed eavesdropping, argued the president. He didn’t want to go to Congress with his request, lest his cover would be exposed. Besides, Congress would endlessly debate the issue. Though our president held citizens’ rights for privacy in high esteem, he believed that as commander in chief he should be allowed to wiretap to protect national defense. Saboteurs should not find it easy to land on our shores. Our president, using dense official language, secretly demanded from the Attorney General clearance to “secure information by listening devices direct to the conversation or other communications of persons suspected of subversive activities against the Government of the United States, including suspected spies.”FDR assured his advisors that wiretaps would be kept to a minimum. Their targets would be sinister aliens, not loyal citizens. The only way to effectively combat terrorism was to play God, mimicking the Divine’s ubiquitous listening ability. Fighting terror mandated that the government not wait for court approval. The president must engage in warrantless wiretapping of suspicious telephone calls coming from overseas into the United States.The Attorney General acknowledged that President Roosevelt did not waver in his conviction that Nazi terror “was the evil thing with which there could be no compromise. The planned barbarities of that system offended his sense of justice.”Robert Jackson wrote that he admired our commander in chief’s courage. He never doubted that in ordinary times the president respected constitutional limits. The Chief Executive would not deliberately exceed these limits. FDR assumed that the power and prestige of his office, combined with secret reports about terrorist activity to which he was privy, allowed the president to sign off on telephone surveillance, even without court approval. Jackson denied this request to wiretap. In an oral history he taped, Jackson said, “The President has a tendency to think in terms of right or wrong, instead of terms of legal and illegal. Before he thought that his motives were always good for the things that he wanted to do, he found difficulty in thinking that there could be legal limitations to them. …He was a strong thinker in terms of right and wrong, for which he frequently went back to quotations from the Scriptures. Certain things were just not right in his view.”Later Roosevelt nominated Jackson for the Supreme Court where he served as Associate Justice from 1941 until his death in 1954. He also served his nation as the American Chief Prosecutor at the Nuremberg Trial when Nazi hoodlums were tried and convicted of crimes against humanity. For over a half century, no one noticed nor published Justice Jackson’s memoirs of Roosevelt written in the 1950’s. Friend and constitutional historian Paul Freund described Jackson’s writing style that soared above ponderous legal prose. “He had a style to delight, grace and power of expression to captivate. His was an Elizabethan gusto for the swordplay of words.” Why shouldn’t a president hear whatever he wants to hear, like God who listens in on every conversation? “We must remember,” Jackson advises in his FDR memoir, “that right has a strength of its own. No end will justify wrong as a means; instead, wrong means will defeat the best of ends. There is a right and a wrong about the conduct of men and of nations that is not merely a matter of expediency, and the man or the people who ceases to make justice its standard of conduct is lost.”Some Americans recoil against arguments based solely on expediency. We rebel against those who say that the cost of fighting terror is suspension of a citizen’s right to privacy. God may overhear our every conversation, but presidents don’t enjoy this privilege.On his 300th birthday anniversary, let’s embrace Ben Franklin’s caution, especially in tense times when terrorism abounds. “Those who would give up essential liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.”The Reverend Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads CREATIVE GROWTH MINISTRIES, enhancing Christian worship through lively storytelling and dramatic presentations. Van Ens’ book, “How Jefferson Made the Best of Bad Messes,” is available in local bookstores for $7.95.Vail, Colorado