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'We don't need to censor the mail, but...'

Associated Press

There's been quite a bit of debate recently about the federal government, in the name of national security, having access to Americans' electronic communications, including emails. Not surprisingly, the surveillance programs have plenty of political defenders, though one high-profile senator is prepared to go further than most.

Faced with questions about the disclosure that the National Security Agency has been collecting phone and email records of citizens, [Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.)] pointed to a World War II-era program in which the federal government censored mail. He said it was appropriate at the time and that he would support reinstating the program if it aided security efforts.

"In World War II, the mentality of the public was that our whole way of life was at risk, we're all in. We censored the mail. When you wrote a letter overseas, it got censored. When a letter was written back from the battlefield to home, they looked at what was in the letter to make sure they were not tipping off the enemy," Graham, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, told reporters on Capitol Hill. "If I thought censoring the mail was necessary, I would suggest it, but I don't think it is."

How gracious of him. It would appear Graham doesn't think snail-mail surveillance is "necessary," not because it would constitute government overreach, but because most folks don't send letters anymore.

Indeed, Graham added, "The First Amendment right to speak is sacrosanct, but it has limits. In World War II, our population understood that what we say in letters could be used against [us by] our enemies."

OK, fine. I don't find Graham's perspective persuasive, but he's entitled to his beliefs. I suppose his perspective is to be expected from a politician who supports denying basic constitutional rights to American citizens captured on American soil -- if they're suspected of terrorist acts.

Indeed, Graham is giving us a peek into one end of an ideological spectrum: in the name of national security, the federal government should be able to access your phone calls, texts, social-media communications, email, and snail mail. It may not be ideal, the argument goes, but we have to keep Americans safe from enemies who would do us harm.

I bring this up, however, because Graham is quite comfortable with "limits" on the First and Fourth Amendments, but has very different views on the Second.

Graham, for example, believes those on the Terrorist Watch List should be allowed to buy assault weapons and explosive powder, even if they can't buy a plane ticket.

Graham also believes anyone -- violent criminals, would-be terrorists, et al -- should be able to go to a gun show, purchase an arsenal, and walk away, without any background check at all.

And why does Graham believe this? Because of his interpretation of the Second Amendment. Sure, we have to keep Americans safe from enemies who would do us harm, even if that means giving the federal government access to our private communications. But stopping potentially dangerous people from buying assault weapons without a background check? That's a bridge too far.

If Graham is hostile towards civil liberties, that's unfortunate, but he can dislike the Bill of Rights if he wants to be. What I find curious, however, is the selectivity -- the South Carolina Republican is skeptical of the First and Fourth Amendments if it means keeping people safe, but thinks the Second should be left wholly untouched whether people are harmed or not.