(May 2007) Does the right to privacy outweigh the right to life? From the way some of our laws are written or interpreted, it seems that way.
Seven U.S. soldiers were kidnaped on May 12, 2007, in Iraq by heavily armed al Qaeda gunmen. Four soldiers were killed, three were taken hostage. A search and rescue mission was immediately initiated, but then halted to comply with FISA (The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act), which prohibits tapping cellphones even in foreign countries without approval from the attorney general. The logic being that the communication lines to be tapped go through the U.S.
FISA was created in 1978 after the Watergate affair to provide oversight of covert surveillance activities. It prescribes procedures for requesting judicial authorization for electronic surveillance and physical search of persons engaged in espionage or international terrorism against the United States on behalf of a foreign power.
Over nine precious hours were wasted before approval came. A few weeks later, the body of one soldier was found in the Euphrates River, and an al Qaeda offshoot group claimed the two others were executed and buried.
It seems absurd, to say the least, that soldiers in the battlefield have the right to kill enemy combatants and terrorists on sight but need approval to tap their phones. What's so tragic about this case is not only that these lives may have been saved had rescuers been able to follow through immediately, but that the rationale behind this delay defies logic.
How can a soldier in an active battlefield have less leeway to act on suspicion than civilian law enforcement personnel and firefighters? If a cop suspects someone in a private residence is in imminent danger of being killed, does he need approval or a warrant to 'break and enter,' which is normally illegal, to avert the tragedy? Of course not. Does a firefighter need approval to break down a wall if he suspects someone on the other side is about to die of smoke inhalation? Would even a civilian be charged with 'criminal mischief' if he broke a car window to rescue a baby who was moments away from death after being left in a car in 90-degree weather?
Fighting an enemy that plays by no civil or humane rules, let alone those of the Geneva Convention, is tough enough. Bogging down our troops with asinine technicalities is the height of irresponsibility. Better that we break the law and save a life, which we do in almost all instances anyway, than allow soldiers do die while we debate legal ramifications.
If we're going to win the war on terrorism, we need to let battlefield decisions be made by Generals -- not legal scholars.
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