I offer my letter in today’s Boston Globe as an example of how to frame the warrantless wiretapping issue:

WHAT SCARED me most as I watched Alberto Gonzales’s testimony Monday to the Senate Judiciary Committee was his refusal to recognize any limits on the president’s power. Senator Dianne Feinstein proposed several actions that the president might take — like suspending the Posse Comitatus Act that keeps the military separate from the police — and could not get Gonzales to admit that any of them would be illegal. He conceded only that Feinstein’s examples raised ”very, very difficult questions.” So I am not comforted by the attorney general’s assurance that the administration’s warrantless wiretapping program does not break the law. Given the law as he understands it, I shudder to imagine a program that he would consider illegal.

Analysis in the extended.
The first line links together the words scared, limits, and president’s power. So the subtext is: “Unlimited power is scary. The president is claiming unlimited power.” I think it’s important to refer to “the president” rather than “Bush”. To a lot of Americans, Bush is a harmless good-old-boy — who could be afraid of him? But the presidency is a powerful office. It could be occupied by anybody and has been occupied by manipulative people like Nixon and LBJ. What we particularly don’t want to do in this context is demean Bush in any of the usual ways. If he’s an ignorant frat-boy, he’s not a threat to dominate the world.

Feinstein’s examples make the point: “We don’t know what they’ll do next.” This is key. The administration wants us to look at each encroachment in isolation and say “What’s the big deal? Why are the liberals getting all bent out of shape about that? It must be partisan politics.” Large numbers of people in red-state America have never made an international call, so the warrantless wiretapping program seems as distant as the Moon to them. In isolation the program does not threaten them. But if it is part of a pattern of accumulating power in the presidency with no limits … that is scary.

Also, getting military, and police into the same line is important. Nobody really likes the idea of military police. Nothing says “fascist” like military police. Gonzales’ “concession” that these are “very, very difficult questions” casts him as evasive and makes him look guilty. (Which is entirely fair, as you know if you watched his testimony. His entire tone was “There, there, don’t you worry your pretty little head.” while offering absolutely no substantive reassurance.)

The final two sentences continue the theme of fright — I go from “scared” in the first sentence to “not comforted” and “shudder” in the last two. Implicitly, I have said how Gonzales could have comforted me — by laying out the clear legal boundaries he sees around presidential power. This is important. It establishes that I am looking for something reasonable and not getting it. In other words, I’m not just a paranoid who is scared all the time regardless. Tone is important here. I’m sounding very reasonable and fact-oriented. The implicit message is: “Reasonable people are frightened by this.”

In the final image I invite the reader to imagine with me: What won’t they do? How far will they have to go before their consciences kick in? We need to keep asking questions like this because it shifts the battle to our turf. We’ve won if we can force the administration to start responding. Imagine if the headline were: “Gonzales denies plans for dictatorship”.

So, to sum up, here’s frame I think we should be using to talk about warrantless wiretapping: The president is accumulating power without limit. That’s scary. They could easily address our fears by telling us what the limits are, but they won’t. So we can only imagine what they ultimately have in mind.

Important words to keep repeating: power, unlimited, unchecked, scary. We need to get those words into articles that are factual and rational and don’t sound at all shrill. The tone should be reasonable — that helps send the scary words and images into the unconscious, where they can do the most good.

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