Though he usually has disdain for "slippery slope" arguments, Bill Maher said on Real Time on Friday, he issue of the National Security Agency (NSA) going through private citizens' Internet data and other personal records, was truly a slippery slope.
"I'm okay with it now that Obama's in office," Maher told his panelists. "I'm kind of trusting of him. But President Ted Cruz? Where this is going would bother me."
"Vice President Dick Cheney would've had your hair on fire," CNN political contributor Ana Navarro responded.
But what tips the scale for him, Maher continued, are nuclear weapons.
"We live in a world of nuclear weapons," he said. "And there are religious fanatics who would love to get one and set it off here."
People who say that the Founding Fathers could not have anticipated assault weapons when discussing the Second Amendment, Maher said, should remember that the writers of the Constitution could not have seen nuclear weapons coming.
"I don't know that they would have been as absolutist about their love of privacy if there were nukes in the world," he told the panel. "The fact that a city can be just demolished in 1 second kinda tips the scale for me. I'm not saying to look into your emails is the right thing, I'm just saying, I'm not gonna pretend it's 'cause I'm brave; it's 'cause I'm scared."
But when Navarro asked him if he supported the policy, Maher demurred, saying he wanted the debate to play out.
"If you're gonna agree with Karl Rove and Antonin Scalia, I might just step out," Navarro said.
Though commonly associated with the "war on terror" following the 9-11 attacks, National Review correspondent Kevin Williamson said, this kind of government "dragnet" approach started much deeper into the past, with surveillance of computer networks and phone records in the 1990s.
"It wasn't talked about as much at the time, but they're not exactly new things," Williamson told Maher. "You've got a lot of people on the right that are really taking advantage of it -- there's an element of selective outrage, I think, there. But it's also the fact that you did have a guy who campaigned for president saying, 'I won't tap your phones, I'm gonna get rid of the stuff in the Patriot Act we don't like, I'm gonna close down Guantanamo Bay, the rest of that stuff. He's taken the George W. Bush football and run with it."
"He tried to close Guantanamo Bay," said Maher of Obama. "Congress wouldn't let him. So let's not spread bullshit right away. There's gonna be enough of it on this table."
"He could stop sending people there if he wanted to," Williamson retorted, which Maher conceded.
But Navarro interjected that people "on the right" she knew were defending the president, saying that should "freak you out even more."
"I've seen Karl Rove, Ari Fleisher going out on TV and defending this," Navarro said. "Listen, should we as Americans have an expectation to privacy? Yes. Is it a realistic expectation? No. Basically, the IRS has turned into the DNC, the DOJ has turned into the KGB, and the NSA is Big Brother watching."
"That's TMI," Maher replied, setting the panel into a group chuckle.
Comedian Dana Gould suggested to the panel that the question people should be asking is whether the expansion of technology is really eroding the veneer of privacy.
"There've been illegal wiretaps since there were phones," Gould said.
"J. Edgar Hoover had literally the big-ass tape recorder under Martin Luther King [Jr.'s] bed," Maher said in agreement. "You had to go into the hotel room and put the thing under the bed."
If people really want privacy, Navarro suggested, they should shun technology entirely, joking that people should buy things.
"That's what [Osama] bin Laden did," Gould said. "It was the only way to do it."
"And look how well it worked out for him," Maher said.
The difference between past surveillance and the current NSA data-mining, Williamson said, was that the tactics approved by the Patriot Act had been used for criminal investigations.
"The stuff that the NSA is doing, and the stuff that they want to do with the DNA swabs is just going after the general population and trying to sift it for information that they might be able to use at some point," he said. "That's a different thing in principle."
Watch the discussion, as posted by Mediaite on Friday, below.