Hillary's Howl

With Sen. Hillary Clinton’s 10-to-1 edge in campaign funding, her complaints about an ad from opponent John Spencer ad reminds one of an elephant howling in pain after having his toe stepped on by a flea. In fact, the Spencer ad, which castigated her record on terrorism, was a clean blow.

In the ad, Spencer criticizes Hillary for voting against the Patriot Act and opposing the National Security Agency policy of wiretapping conversations between Americans and foreigners without first getting a warrant from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. That characterization is fair and accurate on both issues.

Clinton, along with nearly every other member of Congress, voted for the Patriot Act right after 9/11. But when the act came up for renewal at the end of last year, she refused to vote to end a Democratic filibuster that killed the chance to extend the legislation. Instead, she backed a compromise to put the issue over until January.

After the Democrats had demonstrated their muscle by showing that they could hold off cloture on the anti-terrorist legislation, the administration and its allies realized they’d have to compromise, and agreed to changes watering down the act. Thus, Hillary joined almost everyone else in eventually voting for renewal, after she’d succeeded in weakening its protections.

The NSA wiretaps? She’s criticized them from the start, insisting that the administration should have to go to the foreign-intelligence court for approval before tapping any phone.

Spencer opens his ad with a picture of the Brooklyn Bridge and says, correctly, that if Clinton had her way on to the Patriot Act and the wiretaps, it would have opened the way for an al Qaeda strike to demolish the bridge.

The plot to blow up the bridge was uncovered in an NSA wiretap that could not have been preceded by a warrant. Federal investigators had no idea what they were looking for when it was discovered or where to look in the first place.

The NSA trolls through millions of phone calls and asks its sophisticated computers to discern patterns that might be suspicious. Apparently, the words "Brooklyn Bridge" (which must not translate well into Arabic) surfaced in one call, and that was enough to alert Police Commissioner Ray Kelly to flood the bridge with cops. (The alert was required by the Patriot Act, which mandates the sharing of such information, formerly limited by bureaucratic jealousy and concern about compromising sources.)

Then the NSA intercepted a call saying that the bridge was "too hot," obviously from the terrorist. Finally, by interrogating a prisoner in Pakistan (an interrogation allowed by the Patriot Act without an attorney present), the authorities got the name of the plotter and arrested him. Chillingly, the terrorist had full plans for the bridge in his apartment and had correctly identified a spot on the bridge where a well-planted explosive would cause its collapse.

So what’s wrong with Spencer’s ad? Hillary does oppose the NSA’s "warrantless wiretaps." She did vote against the Patriot Act in December of 2005. And but for the Patriot Act and wiretaps, the Brooklyn Bridge would have been blown up.

Clinton criticizes Spencer for showing Osama bin Laden’s picture in the ad next to hers. If she doesn’t like that, perhaps she should think twice before voting to unilaterally disarm us in the War on Terror.

Eileen McGann coauthored this column.