Congress’s most liberal and most conservative members rarely agree on anything, said Pete Kasperowicz in The Hill, but they’ve finally found a common concern: the National Security Agency’s vast surveillance network. This week, 33 Republicans and Democrats sponsored legislation that would amend the Patriot Act to prevent the mass, “incidental” collection of Americans’ phone records, and require the NSA to target only specific terrorist threats. The bill came in reaction to recent revelations by security contractor Edward Snowden that the NSA had set up a metadata-mining system that catalogs and can analyze all phone calls in the U.S. and can vacuum up emails, Internet searches, and Facebook pages originating in foreign countries. No one doubts that the NSA finds its unbridled powers useful, said Eugene Robinson in The Washington Post. The question Americans are now asking is “whether the program is necessary.” This week, NSA director Gen. Keith Alexander assured Congress that the formerly secret programs have helped prevent “more than 50 potential terrorist events” since 9/11, but that assertion sounds both awfully grand and awfully vague. For Americans to make an informed judgment about their government’s intrusion into privacy, “we need a lot more clarity, please.”
If you put aside the national hysteria, the issues here are already quite clear, said The Wall Street Journal in an editorial. Before you can enjoy your freedom and privacy, you first have to avoid “being blown to smithereens on your morning commute.” That’s why the Patriot Act was passed after 9/11. Remember: The NSA and the FBI aren’t listening to your phone calls, or reading your email. They’re scanning the vast pool of “metadata” for suspicious patterns of behavior—such as repeated calls to a known bomb-maker in Yemen—that warrant further investigation. Progressives and libertarians may like to believe that the war against terrorism is over, said Andrew McCarthy in NationalReview.com. But the jihadis think otherwise. Anyone who thinks we should ease our surveillance of Islamic fanatics is “delusional.”
It would be foolish to “abolish these vital programs,” said Charles Krauthammer in The Washington Post, but we do need “to fix them.” The NSA’s data-mining programs may not intrude unreasonably on Americans’ privacy, but such sweeping surveillance power does create the “possibility of abuse.” To ensure that an unscrupulous administration or rogue official cannot use these powerful tools for nefarious ends, “we need a toughening of both congressional oversight and judicial review.” The Patriot Act and all other legislation underpinning our new surveillance architecture, meanwhile, should face reauthorization every two years, so it can be allowed to expire on that happy day when we no longer need it.
“This is a crucial moment,” said Peggy Noonan in The Wall Street Journal. “We can go forward with these programs or we can stop and think.” Our elected leaders may not be totalitarian, “but our technology is totalitarian,” and it’s time to set some reasonable limits on what the government can do in the name of security. Obviously, there are aspects of intelligence work that can’t be fully disclosed, said Clarence Page in the Chicago Tribune, but there’s been too much secrecy. The public deserves a much fuller explanation of how their government is surveilling them, and hard evidence that the information really has stopped terrorist plots. “If the program is worth the effort, our elected leaders need to tell us about it. We can handle it.”