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Robert Bennett: Sticking to facts is effective criticism

Published: Monday, June 17 2013 12:00 a.m. MDT

FILE - In this June 6, 2013 file photo National Security Agency plaques are seen at the compound at Fort Meade, Md. The NSA was founded in 1952 but only publicly acknowledged years later, which explains its nickname “No Such Agency.” It includes the Central Security Service, the military arm of code breakers who work jointly with NSA. Visible from a main highway, the tightly guarded compound requires the highest of clearances to enter, and is equipped with various electronic means to ward off an attack by hackers. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, File)

Patrick Semansky, ASSOCIATED PRESS

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In the depths of the Great Recession, when jobs were being lost and economic activity was badly down, Utah officials rejoiced when the National Security Agency (NSA) picked Utah as the site of a major processing center, to be located just outside the gates of Camp Williams. It meant over a thousand construction jobs as it was being built and continuing economic activity for Salt Lake County once it was finished. Gov. Gary Herbert presided over a press conference confirming the news, with members of the Congressional Delegation in attendance. Knowledge of the building of an NSA facility in Utah was never a secret.

You wouldn't know that from reading certain current blogs. They claim to have "discovered" this "secret location" from which the Obama Administration is "spying on unsuspecting Americans," tying its creation to IRS activity against conservative political groups and the Justice Department's targeting of Associated Press reporters. The resulting conspiracy theory is that the president is engaged in a deliberate sneak attack of unconstitutional oppression against all the civil liberties of his political opponents.

Like all such theories, this one must rely on the selective use of facts to give it credibility. Yes, much of what goes on at the NSA facility is classified, but its creation was in the planning stage long before President Obama was elected and its construction was never hidden. Yes, the government should not listen to the contents of a phone call without a court order, but it can legally record the fact that the call was made (which is what it is actually doing with American citizens) whenever it wants, as the Supreme Court made clear in 1979 (Smith v. Maryland).

The NSA is only reading emails without a court order with respect to non-U.S. citizens outside the U.S. Spying on our enemies is something our government has been doing since the Revolutionary War, and al-Qaida and its allies are our enemies. They declared war on us and bombed our homeland. The government would be remiss if it weren't spying on them.

The Obama administration has taken some very troubling steps into the field of civil liberties, with the IRS and the AP cases being good examples. But arrogance of power is not treason, and bungling one's job through over zealousness is not an attempt to destroy the Constitution. Conspiracy theories to the contrary undermine real patriotism — confidence in one's country — and poison the political dialog.

We saw that happen during the 1960s. The Vietnam War was a huge mistake, brought on primarily by Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara's hubris and ignorance. As that began to become clear, there were those who spoke out against it very appropriately. However, some anti-war protesters went beyond that, morphing into anti-American protestors, claiming that America, not the Soviet Union, was the primary source of evil in the world.

Conservatives should be careful not to follow their example. Legitimate criticism of the administration's overreach and errors should not be turned into blanket attacks on the integrity of established governmental institutions and functions. Not only are such attacks unwarranted, they are bad politics. Following the emergence of the more raucous anti-war protesters at the 1968 Democratic Convention, Democrats lost five of the next six presidential elections, their only victory coming as a result of the Watergate scandal. Unsustainable conspiracy theories undermine the credibility of legitimate complaints.

The Obama administration is currently handling its responsibilities badly enough that there is plenty to talk about without making things up. The best way to be effective in criticizing it is to stay with the facts and away from challenges to its motives.

Robert Bennett, former U.S. Senator from Utah, is a part-time teacher, researcher and lecturer at the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics.

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