Government spying
Security concerns must be balanced with Americans’ right to privacy

The disclosure that the federal government has been secretly mining phone and Internet records on a widespread scale should trouble all Americans who value their rights to privacy and freedom of speech.

It’s the type of activity that would have never been tolerated less than three decades ago (think of former President Richard Nixon) and should serve as a warning of how far our rights have eroded in the panic that followed the 9-11 tragedy.

It’s especially disappointing that all this is happening on President Barack Obama’s watch. Obama was openly critical of what he deemed abuses by the Bush administration, which first implemented the tactics. Now he defends those practices as an effective deterrent to terror attacks and has aggressively prosecuted whistle-blowers who seek to restore the balance. Meanwhile, the evidence of the massive surveillance effort’s success in scuttling terrorist plots has been marginal while the potential for abuses is enormous.

Take for instance, Edward Snowden, who was able to gain access to sensitive documents while working as a contractor for the National Security Agency. The jury may still be out on Snowden’s motives for disclosing information about the extent of the surveillance program to the press, but it illustrates how easily someone within government can access the data. Are we to take it on faith that those in power would never abuse such access to blackmail political rivals or use information for other unsavory purposes?

The reassurances that rules are in place to prevent abuses is facial at best. Vague guidelines that are supposed to ensure government doesn’t stray outside the law and a secret court that has virtually rubber-stamped every request trotted before it hardly qualify as precautionary measures.

We’ve already seen the administration overstep what most would consider a breach of free speech by secretly obtaining voluminous phone records of Associated Press reporters. Obama later acknowledged the danger of creating a chilling effect on journalists, whose investigation of the political process and decision-making helps hold government accountable to the citizens it serves.

That incident and others outline the need for a fulsome and open debate on the extent and value of the surveillance programs. That debate should, among other issues, involve discussion about how best to safeguard the rights we value as Americans.

It’s good to see several prominent Republicans also raise the issue, although most Republicans were content to look the other way when President Bush was in office. A bi-partisan push in Congress could help bring this issue forward.

Ironically, Obama himself laid the groundwork for such a discussion when he delivered his highly-touted speech on the war on terror at the National Defense University. In his speech, the president outlined the sacrifices that had been made and how the landscape in the war on terror had evolved since the tragedy of 9-11.

“America is at a crossroads,” he declared. And the actions that the nation took would help define it for the future. “We have to make decisions based not on fear, but on hard-earned wisdom.”

Obama would do well to heed his own advice as the nation grapples with how to best safeguard not only citizens’ lives but also their freedoms.

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4 comments on this item

Great editorial! I never was a fan of the Patriot Act. Somehow, I suspected what we are seeing today.

I applaud Congress for conducting the hearings on this issue. My only hope it isn't political posturing and then gets dropped after the fanfare. I really don't think George W. would have snooped on us, but Dick Cheney...that's a different story. If these hearings are effective, perhaps they will go back in time and uncover abuses of freedom.

The time to act is now. We have to strike while the iron is hot. The current Obama Administration is obsessed with destroying what they consider their "enemies", much like the Nixon Administration. Stay tuned readers...one of these days Valerie Jarrett's name will eventually surface as the architect of snooping on private innocent citizens.

Let's turn over all the stones and get to the bottom of this tragedy.

I think it's a great program. How many 911 disasters would you accept by doing away with this program.

This program was in effect under George Bush also.

The information that 70% or more of US intelligence work and it's secret budget has been outsourced to private companies since 9/11/01 isn't being reported by main stream media and that should worry all of us. By 2011, more than 4.2 million government and contract workers had security clearances and more than a third of them had top-secret access. We should be worrying not only about what info our government is collecting and doing with it but also the 1,900 private contractors who have profited massively with our taxpayer monies. Contractors even administer the security clearance reviews.

We have already seen the massive use of private contractors in our military/wars and privatization of water/utilities, education, prisons, transportation in this country so we shouldn't be surprised that private companies are deep into the snoop biz. Private companies exist solely to make money, first and foremost. We should all be concerned when profit is partnered with vital national interests.

I see by this morning's news, the government has been spying on our snail mail, with instructions to postal employees to photograph mail "they" think is suspicious. "they" think, what the heck is that all about?

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