When such an articulate commentator as Robert Novak tries to reinforce the American government's case for breaking encrypted communications ["Opening the Lines for Criminal Conversation," op-ed, June 28], and parrots the line of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and the FBI, it is time for some blunt talk about what is at stake here.

The occasion for Novak's tantrum -- and that of DEA Director Thomas A. Constantine and FBI Director Louis J. Freeh -- is the so-called "anti-control legislation" that Sen. John McCain recently reported out of his Commerce Committee. Supposedly, this legislative action reflects the malign political influence of "Silicon Valley," whose Bill Gates is pictured as having a "net worth . . . calculated at $90 billion," in contrast to "60-year-old Tom Constantine, who began his 39 years in police work as a deputy sheriff in Buffalo" and now, as a federal law enforcement official, fears authorities are losing the ability to wiretap the conversations of suspected criminals.

Well, first of all, so what? Poor old Tom Constantine has the authority to jail, even kill, some private American citizen for reasons beyond political control, while young Bill Gates can't even make me buy his software.

The debate about encryption is nothing less than the Armageddon of government police power vs. the heart and soul of the U.S. Constitution. Where is it written that American police officials (that is, crime, drug and tax officials) must have access to every communication, every transaction, among American citizens and any other persons in the world?

The pillars of liberty are ensured privacy and inviolable property. To be ensured, privacy must enjoy the broadest possible constitutional protection -- and property must be absolutely protected from government seizure unless in recompense for a civil judgment.

While people such as Constantine and Freeh, and Novak, put it about that government is losing this battle against "the drug cartels," all American citizens -- though they do not perceive this -- are losing their freedoms in principle and in practice. The so-called "law-enforcers" have captured the high ground of the civics textbooks. Citizens docilely accept -- even enthusiastically cheer -- the creeping criminalization of activities such as the transfer of legally gotten assets.

American society is in for a real battle against state-sponsored terrorism on a scale not yet experienced. That battle will test our society's resources of defense and intelligence. In the face of this threat, our government's war on "money laundering" is not only an assault on the ordinary freedoms of Americans. It is also a distraction from the exacting task of drawing the proper lines of defense of the real security of our society.

The writer is a senior fellow of the Cato Institute.