Congress must fully explore if NSA surveillance valuable

First an admonition: Members of Congress should stop playing politics with our national security.

We say that because of the initial reaction from some to President Obama’s speech last week about the need to overhaul U.S. surveillance.

Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, contended that the president had intensified a sense of uncertainty about the country’s ability to root out terrorist threats.

No, Obama didn’t say anything that would lead to the conclusion drawn by Rogers. What the president did do, much to the chagrin of Libertarians and other Americans who think government is too involved in our lives, is reiterate his belief that the National Security Agency’s surveillance programs are essential to America’s safety and well-being.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, was on the mark in her appraisal of the dangers we face today from an enemy both unseen and immoral:

“New bombs are being devised, New terrorists are emerging, new groups. Actually, a new level of viciousness. And I think we need to be prepared.”

Indeed, this was the very same justification used by Republican President George W. Bush when he pushed through the Patriot Acts. The reason for the stepped-up surveillance programs was the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack on America’s homeland that claimed more than 3,000 lives. Several of the airplane hijackers had been living in this country when they were planning the commandeering of three commercial aircraft with the goal of using them as weapons of mass destruction.

Today, despite the Obama administration’s success at eliminating the masterminds of the attack, including Osama bin Laden, founder of al-Qaida, the world’s leading terrorist organization, this country and Americans abroad are still in harm’s way.

Those who would do us harm have not been dissuaded by the killing of bin Laden and many others.

Thus, the question before Congress: What should the U.S. do to keep a close watch over the terrorists and their accessories to murder, but yet protect the privacy rights of lawful Americans?

If nothing else, President Obama’s speech last week has made that question central to the debate that will be taking place in Congress.

There is legitimate concern about the president’s suggestion that bulk phone data be stored outside the government to reduce the risk that the records will be abused.

National debate

Indeed, the national debate we’re now having about surveillance of Americans was triggered by former NSA analyst Edward Snowden absconding with 1.7 million documents related to spying and other agency operations and giving the documents to journalists around the world.

The question of whether Americans have given up their privacy protections in exchange for intelligence-gathering on terrorism is at the heart of discussion in homes, work places and the media.

Despite our long-standing misgivings about the constitutionality of the Patriot Acts and their successors, we do agree with President Obama that the NSA programs are necessary. We applaud him for moving quickly to reassure the leaders of America’s allies that the revelations of spying on them have resulted in his administration putting an end to such a perceived breach of trust.

But, given the daily reports of terrorist activities around the world aimed at the U.S. and its allies, the need for vigilance in tracking down the terror mongers is undeniable.

Congress, in debating what should be done with all the information amassed through the NSA’s programs, should not forget that the NSA gathers phone numbers and the length of conversations, but not the content of the calls.

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