Last month, I wrote a short piece for the American Spectator in which I argued that the position Republicans have taken on executive-branch spying powers in recent decades is as much a historical accident as a natural outgrowth of conservative principles. I wish that at the time I’d read Kathryn Olmstead’s fine book Challenging the Secret Goverment, in which she notes that in the early Cold War period, it was often the taint of McCarthyism that prevented Congress from exercising greater intelligence oversight. Olmstead writes:
[President] Eisenhower vehemently opposed [a congressional oversight body], claiming that McCarthyites would dominate the committee. The president’s opposition convinced fourteen cosponsors of the bill—all but one of whom were Republicans—to change their minds and oppose the measure. Ultimately, the bill was defeated by a 59–27 vote, with liberal Democrats and right-wing McCarthyites forming an uneasy and unsuccessful alliance in support of greater oversight.
I don’t generally consider it an endorsement to learn that a position is associated with Joseph McCarthy, but whatever we think of the man, we do know now that his worries about infiltration of the executive branch were not wholly groundless either. Ann Coulter has been attempting to revive Tailgunner Joe’s reputation; I won’t claim to find the effort particularly compelling, but if some conservatives do, they might try emulating his insistence that there be checks on powerful and secretive executive agencies.