During the 1970s, like many Americans, I was shocked and alarmed to learn that the National Security Agency even existed. Exposing it and the FBI's shredding of our Bill of Rights was Democratic Sen. Frank Church of Idaho, chairman of the Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations With Respect to Intelligence Activities, known as the Church Committee. The committee released reports on its investigations of American intelligence in 1975 and 1976.
A courageous constitutionalist, Church probed the FBI and the CIA for secretly digging into our lives; he especially focused on the NSA. The Cato Institute's vice president Gene Healy reports on one example of the Church Committee's findings:
"Under 'Project Minaret,' from the early 1960s until 1973, the NSA compiled watch lists of potentially subversive Americans, monitored their overseas calls and telegrams, sharing the results with other federal agencies."
Citing the Church Committee's findings, Healy writes that "ordinary citizens involved in protests" were among those being monitored.
And in a direct warning to We The People, Healy quotes Church, who in 1976 told us "such is the (NSA's) capability to monitor everything -- telephone conversations, telegrams, it doesn't matter. There would be no place to hide."
Even if the valiant Church couldn't safeguard our Constitution from the NSA, current members of Congress have promised to investigate its formerly secret collusion with the Obama administration. There is also much concern among Americans of diverse political allegiances.
But for how long will this last?
For example, any vision I had of Barack Obama testifying at his eventual impeachment trial was suddenly dimmed by the results of a poll conducted by the usually credible Pew Research Center (done with The Washington Post): "A majority of Americans -- 56 percent -- say the National Security Agency's (NSA) tracking the telephone records of millions of Americans is an acceptable way for the government to investigate terrorism."
Furthermore, Pew found that Americans have supported government efforts to investigate terrorist threats, "even at the expense of personal privacy," since Sept. 11.
But this "new normal" of the president trading the Constitution in for the government's collection of our thoughts and actions is older than that day.
We are, without exaggeration, in one of the most crucial periods of American history. We can prevent terrorists around the world from eventually having their way with us if we stop our unconstitutional government from denuding us of who we are as Americans. Otherwise, what are we defending?
Nat Hentoff is an authority on the First Amendment and the Bill of Rights.