Ted Koppel on Terror vs. Liberty

Last week a federal judge in Detroit ordered a halt to the National Security Agency's program of warrantless domestic wiretapping, declaring it unconstitutional. The ruling was a setback for the Bush administration, which defended the program as an essential tool in its "war against terror." The decision also illustrates the tension that has mounted in the five years since September 11, 2001, between fighting terror and preserving civil liberties. It is a tension that newsman Ted Koppel, the former "Nightline" anchor, explores at length in "The Price of Security," an upcoming documentary on the Discovery Channel that commemorates the fifth anniversary of 9/11.

Over the course of three hours, Koppel describes the genuine security threat facing the United States. But he cautions that in the course of addressing that threat, the Bush administration has been undermining some of the freedoms on which the country was founded. "The executive branch," he tells NEWSWEEK's Brian Braiker in a recent interview, "has taken unto itself certain rights and privileges and powers that it probably should not have without some judicial or legislative oversight." Koppel also discusses why he's addressing this topic on a cable channel as opposed to his former network, ABC, and offers his take on the new crop of evening news anchors. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: These tensions are certainly not new. Lincoln suspended habeas corpus during the Civil War. World War I saw the abuse of the Espionage and Sedition Acts.

Ted Koppel: Exactly. The difference is that—I don't know if you're familiar with the term much in vogue at the Pentagon these days—they refer to this now as the "long war," by which they mean it is a war without end. We can expect to be in this war for a generation or more to come.

So this tension, then, between civil liberties and fighting this long war is not going to go away any time soon.

That's correct. Now the question is whether you accept the fundamental premise of the Bush administration, which is that we are in an existential struggle—that is an actual term that they have used. The Bush administration has this nightmare, and it's a legitimate nightmare, not that there will be another 9/11 but that there could be a 9/11 with biological, chemical or nuclear weapons. That would totally undermine almost everything we've come to believe in in this country. It could change America in ways we couldn't even begin to envision.

The Cold War, which was won, was an existential war.

Exactly. I've now done about seven or eight interviews and you'll be happy to learn no one has been smart enough to make that analogy. It's a really interesting analogy because during the McCarthy era, a certain number of constitutional rights were violated precisely because everything was justifiable in the interests of fighting communism. The notion that we are locked in that kind of a struggle has created in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 a certain psychology. [Democratic Vermont Sen.] Pat Leahy, the then-chairman of the Senate judiciary committee, told me that when the Patriot Act was being proposed, a ranking member of the opposition at one point said, "Let's just sign it." Leahy said to him, "but they haven't finished writing it." His Republican counterpart said, "That's all right. The White House fill in the details." That was the mindset.

So fast-forward five years, what's the mindset now?

You fast-forward five years and what you see is that there's been—as there often is in this country—a pendulum effect. The pendulum has swung from concerns that were almost exclusively focused on security five years ago, where people were asking, "Why is it the FBI wasn't talking to the CIA? And why is it that you didn't connect the dots? And why is it that you haven't been bugging any phones?" Over the course of these past five years, people have begun to change their focus and some people now are saying "I didn't realize you were sending people over to [secret detention center] 'black sites.' And I didn't know that you'd be bugging my phone. I'm not sure I like that."

Are you worried that we're over-concerned with privacy and constitutional liberties now?

No. I'm really worried that policy not be made at the end of a pendulum, that in fact we have a national debate about where we want to be. I interviewed Alberto Mora [former general counsel to the United States Navy], who said something very interesting. He said, "If I thought that we had hold of a terrorist who knew about plans to set off a nuclear device in an American city, I might torture that person. But I would want to do that in the knowledge that I would then be held to account for what I've done and that there were laws prohibiting that kind of action." He said, "What I object to is that they were trying to rewrite the law in such a way that people would be relieved of that responsibility."

Isn't that splitting hairs?

No, I don't think so.

But he says he would commit torture anyway.

Yeah, but the difference [is] between knowing that you might spend five years in prison for torturing someone and the long slippery slope that begins if an interrogator knows that he has already been excused of any legal responsibility. I think there's a huge difference. In one case, you know there's a price to be paid and you would only do it in the most extreme circumstances and in the other case, the rules under which you do it become more and more relaxed until [torture] just becomes ubiquitous.

You said that you don't want policy to be made at the end of a pendulum. But this is an election year and the fifth anniversary of 9/11. Is the rhetoric likely to cool off any time soon?

The notion that political rhetoric has an unsavory impact on good policy being made is real, but what else is new? There needs to be a period of A) national debate and B) debate in Congress. Let's come to terms with the notion that we're going to be confronting these kinds of tensions and pressures for the next 20 or 30 years. We need to look in a clear-eyed fashion at how much liberty we can afford. And how much security we can afford.

The recent airline plot was undone in Britain. The United Kingdom has less-restrictive surveillance laws, a domestic intelligence agency, almost no rules against watching and tracking Muslims in mosques, and no First Amendment. Could those be ingredients for a more effective fight against terror?

They could be, but you're only mentioning half of the British equation. The other half is that at some point or another they either have to be released or charges have to be brought against them. Those charges will be adjudicated in a court of law. If they have been mistreated in any way, then whatever confessions they made would be thrown out of court. The fact of the matter is that Jose Padilla was an American citizen, arrested in the United States, sent to a Navy brig and interrogated there for three months without access to a lawyer. That's not acceptable.

There's also speculation that eavesdropping by U.S. officials played a roll in thwarting the alleged plot.

And I think it is absolutely appropriate that we debate that.

We're not hearing a lot of discussion about these issues in the mainstream press. You're on the Discovery Channel, Dan Rather will be on HDNet. Is cable where people have to go now if they want serious television journalism?

There is a lingering perception of what broadcast journalism is or was in terms of its reach. "Nightline" began in 1980. "Nightline" and "The Tonight Show" and whatever was on CBS back then, among the three of us we had 70 percent of the audience. When I left "Nightline" almost a year ago, "Nightline" and the [David] Letterman show and the "Tonight Show" had 28 percent. Fact of the matter is, when "The Price of Security" goes on Sept 10, I'll be very happy if we get a couple million viewers. That's significantly less than we would get if we were on at eight o'clock on ABC. But no such program is going to get on the air at eight o'clock on ABC.

Why not?

Because it will not be perceived as reaching the right demographic.

What's your take on the new crop of anchors?

Charlie [Gibson] I watch all the time. He's terrific. I'm an old fart and Charlie's an old-fashioned kind of news guy. I think Brian Williams has been a very pleasant surprise. I think he's doing extremely well and I think he's just going to keep on getting better and better. And Katie [Couric] is in a really excruciatingly difficult position because I don't know how she comes out of it being perceived as a winner. If she's No. 1 at the end of the first week, all you guys are going to say, "Yeah, well that was the first week. Let's see how she does in three months." And if she's only No. 2 at the end of the first week or first month, you'll say, "15 million bucks and she's only No. 2!"

The networks are experimenting with broadcasting their evening news on the Web. Your thoughts?

The single message that has survived throughout the millennia, and has as much impact today as it did at the time it was delivered, was allegedly carved into two stone tablets by the finger of God. Lousy medium, great message. I sometimes think we place so much value on the medium that we ignore the importance of the message. Media doesn't survive. Messages do.