The following are excerpts from commentaries and editorials regarding the National Security Agency's data-gathering practices:


CHARLES M. BLOW, New York Times:

The Obama administration is taking unprecedented steps to make sure that government secrets remain private while simultaneously invading the privacy of its citizens. This is a “Papa knows best” approach to security policy.

We are told that this has helped to keep us safe, and that any loss of civil liberties and sense of privacy is inconsequential. It’s a digital stop-and-frisk.

Even if you trust these “papas” — and I fully trust no politicians — what happens when they are replaced by new ones, ones you do not trust, ones with whom you do not agree?

That’s the problem: Beyond the present potential for abuse, these policies establish a dangerous, bipartisan precedent, spanning all branches of government.

Imagine what damage the power to indiscriminately collect endless amounts of private data on innocent citizens could do in the hands of men and women of ill intent. The world is no stranger to that kind of abuse.

This is not a right-left thing. This is a right-wrong thing. This is one of those rare moments where the left edge and the right one can meet: This government overreach is a threat to liberty.

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CHARLES A. SHANOR, New York Times:

Hold it just a minute. From what has been made public, we know that the FBI used its powers under the Patriot Act to seek these records; that judges with the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court approved these searches, and that members of Congress with oversight powers over the intelligence community were briefed about the searches. It is evident, then, that all three branches of government were involved in the records search. The authorizations were approved by life-tenured federal judges who are sworn to uphold the Constitution, including the Fourth Amendment, which prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures. On the surface, our system of checks and balances seems to be working.

We cannot rule out the possibility that the voluminous records obtained by the government might, some day, be illegally misused. But there is no evidence so far that has occurred. No contents of phone conversations are being provided to the government. The Supreme Court long ago authorized law enforcement agencies to obtain call logs — albeit on paper rather than from a computer database — without full probable cause to believe a crime had been committed.

I will take my chances and trust the three branches of government to look out for my interest.

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Edward Snowden sounds like a thoughtful, patriotic young man, and I’m sure glad he blew the whistle on the NSA’s surveillance programs. But the more I learned about him, the angrier I became. Wait, him? The NSA trusted its most sensitive documents to this guy? And now, after it has just proven itself so inept at handling its own information, the agency still wants us to believe that it can securely hold on to all of our data? Oy vey!

Let’s note what Snowden is not: He isn’t a seasoned FBI or CIA investigator. He isn’t a State Department analyst. He’s not an attorney with a specialty in national security or privacy law. Instead, he’s the IT guy, and not a very accomplished, experienced one at that.

The worst part about the NSA’s surveillance is not its massive reach. It’s that it operates entirely in secret, so that we have no way of assessing the sophistication of its operation. All we have is the word of our politicians, who tell us that they’ve vetted these systems and that we should blindly trust that the data aren’t vulnerable to abuse.

Snowden’s leak is thus doubly damaging. The scandal isn’t just that the government is spying on us. It’s also that it’s giving guys like Snowden keys to the spying program. It suggests the worst combination of overreach and amateurishness, of power leveraged by incompetence. The Keystone Cops are listening to us all.

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As a candidate for president in 2008, Barack Obama set a high bar for his administration, declaring that it would be “the most open and transparent in history.” But Obama for years has been making decisions behind closed doors about the privacy of American citizens’ telephone records and other data.

We actually had more faith in Obama than in Congress or the courts to do the right thing, based on his 2008 campaign. But Americans need to better understand what’s happened since to determine if the balance of safety and civil liberties has been skewed.

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Handled with scrupulous restraint and impartiality, the information the government gathers from this monitoring poses no threat to law-abiding citizens.

But how do we know NSA isn’t giving special attention to Tea Party groups? How do we know that monitors aren’t prying into e-mails between critics of U.S. drone attacks and their contacts abroad?

Any power granted to the government is subject to abuse — and that goes double for powers exercised in secret. One reason the government’s efforts to stop terrorism may go too far is that the FISA court operates in a nonadversarial fashion. The government asks for permission to get certain records or listen to certain conversations, and the judges decide whether to go along — as they almost always do. Congress could create an independent office of lawyers, analogous to public defenders, to oppose the government in this arena, thus assuring that the court sees the whole picture.

The stakes are high here — human lives and national security on one hand, individual privacy and democratic control on the other. Greater knowledge and a vigorous debate can only help in finding the right balance.

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GAIL COLLINS, New York Times:

Does the NSA really need all the stuff it’s collecting? Ever since the attack on the World Trade Center, the agency has been exploding. It collects an estimated 1.7 billion pieces of communication a day.

Those of us who have seen the show “Hoarders” know that more is not always better, and “as much as possible” is sometimes covering up a pile of dead cats. After all, the government didn’t fail to stop the attack on the World Trade Center because of a lack of data. It had lots of information about Al-Qaida and its plan to stage an attack on America. The problem was with follow-up.

We do seem to have an ominous combination: an agency with a bad record on thriftiness, and practically everything it spends money on is secret. The president keeps saying that “Congress is continually briefed” about security issues. In reality, the briefing is pretty much confined to the members of the House and Senate intelligence committees, who are sworn to secrecy. Many of them also have a longstanding record of being in the pocket of the intelligence community. A few of the others had been desperately trying to warn their colleagues about the telephone-call program without breaking their vow of silence. Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon did everything but tap dance the information in Morse code.

It’s really up to the president. Obama looked as if he would be great at riding herd on the NSA’s excesses. But if he has ever pushed back on the spy set, it’s been kept … a secret.

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STEWART BAKER, Foreign Policy:

Plenty of people will say that they don’t trust the government with such a large amount of data — that there’s too much risk it will break the rules — even rules enforced by a two-party, three-branch system of checks and balances. When I first read the order, even I had a moment of chagrin and disbelief at its sweep.

But for those who don’t like the model, the real question is “compared to what”? Those who want to push the government back into the standard law enforcement approach of identifying terrorists will have to explain how it will allow us to catch terrorists who use halfway decent trade­craft — or why sticking with that model is so fundamentally important that we should do so even if it means more acts of terrorism at home.

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TIM WEINER, Bloomberg View:

Obama has said he welcomes a debate on the clash between national security and civil liberties. Fine, let’s have one — preferably in public, with witnesses under oath, starting with the NSA’s director and Google’s “don’t be evil” executives. The Senate should revive the Church Committee, which exposed the NSA’s spying on Americans in the months before the U.S. bicentennial in 1976.

Obama says this is perfectly legal, that the courts and Congress are on board, and that no Americans have been harmed. He may well be right. But, in the words of Michael Kinsley, the scandal is not what is illegal — it is what is legal.

Secret power can be a danger in a democracy. U.S. intelligence services have a history of operating at the edge of the law and beyond. But fewer judges, politicians and reporters today have the courage to check them than back in the days when the Church Committee let us see the skeletons in the closets of our spooks. That’s why the laws governing intelligence need a public hearing.

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MAUREEN DOWD, New York Times:

‘There was of course no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any given moment,” George Orwell wrote in “1984.”

It was quaint to think we had any privacy left, once Google, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram braided themselves into our days and nights. Still, it was a bit of a shock to find out that No Such Agency, as the NSA is nicknamed, has been collecting information for seven years on every phone call Americans make. The Washington Post reported that the career intelligence officer who leaked the information was appalled and considered the program a gross intrusion on privacy. “They quite literally can watch your ideas form as you type,” the officer said.

Don’t count on Congress to fix the assault on privacy. Driven by a craven fear of being seen as soft on terrorists, both parties have lined up behind the indiscriminate surveillance sweeps, except for a few outliers on either end of the spectrum.

Back in 2007, Obama said he would not want to run an administration that was “Bush-Cheney lite.” He doesn’t have to worry. With prisoners denied due process at Gitmo starving themselves, with the CIA not always aware who it’s killing with drones, with an overzealous approach to leaks, and with the government’s secret domestic spy business swelling, there’s nothing lite about it.

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Aside from concerns about privacy and government power, PRISM is also cause for economic anxiety. The companies reportedly compliant with the NSA’s snooping look like a Who’s Who of 21st-century American innovation: Apple, Yahoo, Google, Microsoft and Facebook all joined the party.

The companies involved have been offering carefully worded denials, but even hints of acquiescence in this program should be cause for deep worry from a business perspective. Foreign governments, already inclined to protect homegrown technology businesses, might find such surveillance a convenient excuse to increase regulatory or antitrust pressure on Silicon Valley hegemons. More legitimately, they might also want to protect their citizens and businesses from foreign espionage.

In a 2009 debate on Patriot Act provisions, Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois predicted the program would run into trouble. “Someday the cloak will be lifted, and future generations will ask whether our actions today meet the test of a democratic society — transparency, accountability and fidelity to the rule of law and our Constitution,” he said.

Durbin was prescient, but his timing was off. His questions aren’t for future generations — they’re for us.

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ROSS DOUTHAT, New York Times:

For us, the age of surveillance is more likely to drift toward what Alexis de Tocqueville described as “soft despotism.” Our government will enjoy extraordinary, potentially tyrannical powers, but most citizens will be monitored without feeling persecuted or coerced.

Instead of a climate of pervasive fear, there will be a chilling effect at the margins of political discourse, mostly affecting groups and opinions considered disreputable already. Instead of a top-down program of political repression, there will be a more haphazard pattern of politically motivated, Big Data-enabled abuses. (Think of the recent IRS scandals, but with damaging personal information being leaked instead of donor lists.)

In this atmosphere, radicalism and protest will seem riskier, paranoia will be more reasonable, and conspiracy theories will proliferate. But because genuinely dangerous people will often be pre-empted or more swiftly caught, the privacy-for-security swap will seem like a reasonable trade-off to many Americans — especially when there is no obvious alternative short of disconnecting from the Internet entirely.

Welcome to the future. Just make sure you don’t have anything to hide.


• • •

Remind me why we have a Constitution? Because of its ban on unreasonable searches and seizures, the government normally can get a warrant to invade someone’s home and papers only if it has tangible grounds to think the person did something illegal and only if it specifies what it’s looking for. Searches require what lawyers refer to as individualized suspicion.

In dissenting from a recent Supreme Court decision allowing police to take DNA swabs from felony arrestees, Justice Antonin Scalia noted some relevant history. “At the time of the Founding, Americans despised the British use of so-called ‘general warrants’ — warrants not grounded upon a sworn oath of a specific infraction by a particular individual, and thus not limited in scope and application.” The Fourth Amendment was intended to prevent such warrants.

The logic of Scalia’s conclusion applies as well here: “Solving unsolved crimes is a noble objective, but it occupies a lower place in the American pantheon of noble objectives than the protection of our people from suspicionless law-enforcement searches.”

STEVE CHAPMAN, Chicago Tribune