Utah politicians, who learn to condemn the excesses of the federal government before they can walk, have been handed a perfect opportunity. They have a chance to go ballistic over news of unconstitutional excess, centered right in Salt Lake City, that reportedly happened even as federal officials were promising Utah's leaders that no such thing was going on.
And their reaction? Well, as voiced by Gov. Gary Herbert, the consensus seems to be that Utah should "cut them a little slack," and hope the spies are better behaved, and better supervised, in the future.
In a story first broken by The Wall Street Journal, we became aware this past week that the National Security Agency and FBI were not only blanketing Salt Lake City with their presence during the 2002 Winter Olympic Games, they were also monitoring Utahns' Internet traffic and text messages. Current and former state officials, who generally make a practice of denigrating the federal government for everything from energy policy to health care to gun regulation, have managed no more than a collective "Meh."
Then-Gov. Mike Leavitt has said he had no idea that the federal surveillance efforts were so exhaustive and intrusive. But then-Sen. Bob Bennett said that, while he wasn't aware of the data sweeps at the time, he isn't surprised by the news.
Bennett, like Herbert, noted that the Olympics, always a security nightmare, took place only months after the terrorist attacks of 9/11. It was a different world then, they said, thus their willingness to holster any outrage they might feel.
There is truth in that. But our state leaders would be doing us a much larger service if, instead of shrugging it all off, they would help all of us to better understand that it was not just a different time. It was an insane time.
After 9/11, Americans cheered as our government created a behemoth "homeland security" structure. Empowered secret courts to watch over even more secret intelligence operations. Opened and closed secret prisons where suspected terrorists and random detainees were tortured and humiliated. Imprisoned some whistle-blowers and forced others into exile. And, even through a change of administrations that handed the White House from one party to the other, continued to deny us the basic information we as citizens of a democracy need to judge the doings of the government that, in the end, only we are responsible for.
What the federal government did in Utah in 2002 was wrong. People who purport to lead Utah should not let the fact that it was done under a Republican administration stop them from saying so now.