Uncle Sam’s prying eyes

June 11, 2013 

Edward Snowden, the man who exposed the U.S. government’s all-seeing eyes, is for the moment in search of asylum and, ironically, out of sight.

But the elusive Snowden has left behind two debates. The most immediate one concerns the nature of what he did. Is he Benedict Arnold or Paul Revere? Did Snowden, a 29-year-old former National Security Agency contractor, betray his country or sound an alarm over an invasion of Americans’ privacy?

The answers may well depend on the outcome of the wider debate his breach ingnited: How far is too far when it comes to the government’s watchfulness for people plotting acts of terror?

In the wake of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the Patriot Act granted the government broad powers in the name of preventing terrorist attacks. There were critics, but for the most part the public supported the idea that, sometimes, in the name of stopping terrorism, the government might have to engage in a little muscular surveillance.

But last week the extent of the spying exposed by Snowden disturbed even Wisconsin Republican Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, a sponsor of the Patriot Act. One report came from The Guardian in London: The National Security Agency has been tracking records of virtually all customers of Verizon. That news prompted legitimate speculation that it was doing the same with other phone companies. Then the Washington Post reported that the NSA and the FBI were looking at videos and emails from nine Internet companies.

The Obama administration, gearing up in full damage-control mode, said the surveillance is nothing to worry about and focused not on all average Americans but on those with overseas connections. Then the president’s allies in Congress came forward: Harry Reid, the Democratic Senate leader, and Dianne Feinstein, a senior Democrat from California and chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, both said this is much ado about nothing. Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia said the intelligence efforts were worthwhile and focused only on “bad guys.”

But the degree of surveillance and the blanket nature of some of it raise serious questions that need more than defenses by political allies or attacks on Snowden.

Where President Obama runs into trouble on this issue, frankly, is when he is confronted with his own previous statements. He spoke often during his first campaign for the presidency about the need for transparency in government. He was critical of the Bush administration for secrecy. He vowed to do better, to not indulge in the cloak and dagger stuff. But this broad-based surveillance, especially when considered in the context of the administration’s intense pursuit of information from media about the sources of leaks, adds to the sense that it has gone too far in the name of preventing terrorism.

The president’s defenders say the surveillance methods have worked, but that assurance is a claim that Americans must accept largely on trust.

The president is in a curious position here. He can’t say too much about the surveillance program because of national security. But he cannot expect the American people to just accept the reassurances of politicians loyal to the president that everything’s OK.

Indeed, the significance of Snowden’s breech of secrecy isn’t simply what he showed about the extent of spying, but also what he exposed about the weakness of safeguards. Snowden is an employee who advanced on the basis of his skills with computers. That’s all he needed to be given access to communications records involving millions of Americans and people overseas.

In an interview with the Guardian, Snowden said, “The government has granted itself power it is not entitled to. There is no public oversight. The result is people like myself have the latitude to go further than they are allowed to.”

Obama must demonstrate that the programs of oversight are sufficiently overseen themselves and that they include safeguards that overzealous investigators will not go beyond reason in the name of national security.

Americans accept that terrorism is still a threat. They understand the need for intrusive inspections at airports, and they are willing to surrender a degree of privacy to help the government detect the “bad guys.” But President Obama must draw the lines and set the standards and do so in a way that respects Americans’ fundamental freedoms, one of which is emphatically the right to privacy.

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