NSA Debate Weighs Privacy vs. Security

Do I trust the federal government? Hell no. President Barack Obama’s Department of Justice is happy to spend years investigating a foreign soccer organization for corruption and former Republican House Speaker Dennis Hastert for allegedly paying off a blackmailer — but not the alleged blackmailer — yet ignores big concerns. The feds have done next to nothing about the IRS targeting of conservative political groups, other than to defend IRS official Lois Lerner’s creative use of the Fifth Amendment when she refused to answer questions from House investigators. And when Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., asked in 2013 whether the government was collecting data on millions of Americans, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said no. Shortly thereafter, Edward Snowden leaked information that showed Clapper had lied. The very fact that leaker Snowden had been given top security clearance made the intelligence community appear reckless and incompetent.

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Still, I am among the majority of Americans who support the National Security Agency’s bulk collection of data. I want the government to have the tools it needs to prevent another major terrorist attack. If that means giving the government access to bulk phone records (SET ITAL)without listening to the calls(END ITAL), that’s a bargain I can accept.

I also want the government to be able to monitor suspected “lone wolf” terrorists, as well as to listen in on suspicious calls — even if the suspect changes phones or devices. Those two powers, along with bulk data collection, expired Sunday after the Senate failed to pass a House reform measure to keep parts of the Patriot Act alive.

“Tonight begins the process of ending bulk collection” by the government, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., proclaimed. Republican hawks accused Paul, a presidential candidate, of using the issue for fundraising. I think they’re wrong; they fail to appreciate Paul’s enthusiasm for the Bill of Rights and the Fourth Amendment. He dug in his heels on the issue even though a recent CNN poll shows that 73 percent of Republicans support government collection of bulk telephone records. He’s willing to risk a political loss for primacy of principle.

President Obama did call on the Senate to end this “irresponsible lapse” by passing the House reform measure, but it’s hard to shake the suspicion this was a back-burner issue for the administration.

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid hit Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell for not having “a plan.” Actually, McConnell had a plan, but it failed. He wanted to extend the Patriot Act because of his concern that the reform measure, the USA Freedom Act, would not require telecom companies to hold on to data for more than 18 months. Now McConnell needs to get behind the best bill Congress can pass. Pronto.

McConnell, wags like to point out, endorsed Paul for president — and this is how Paul repaid McConnell. The thing is that Paul is not the only Republican critic of government bulk data collection. Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., author of the original Patriot Act, believes that the FBI overreached on surveillance. Now he is an author of the USA Freedom Act. It passed the House with a healthy bipartisan vote — because a lot of people don’t trust the government.

Email Debra J. Saunders at [email protected]

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