Editorial: Nation needs debate on gov't snooping
A dozen years after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the actions of Edward Snowden -- the former CIA employee who leaked news of the National Security Administration's vast information-gathering program -- has touched off a furious national policy debate as Americans struggle to balance security and privacy.
The big question: Is massive government intrusion into American private lives a justifiable trade-off in the fight against terrorists? Or has it gone too far?
After 9/11, a shaken public widely embraced the need for increased surveillance. The federal law enforcement mission was widened to encompass prevention of terrorist attacks. But to do that, officials needed greater authority to snoop on those suspected of plotting terrorism. The Patriot Act was passed to give them -- via court orders or administrative subpoenas known as national security letters -- more leeway to seize business records such as phone logs.
The NSA began voraciously collecting phone records from major telecommunications companies, and as it did, it moved far beyond the targeting of people suspected of international terrorism or spying as authorized in the law.
Its actions have amounted to nothing less than a radical escalation of government intrusion into American private lives. So now, how much is too much?
Many New York City residents have found comfort in reports that the NSA program helped stop planned terror attacks within the city's subway system and at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. This would seem to offer some validation for the NSA. Unfortunately, the NSA role in those cases remains too murky for applause.
We need to know what the government is doing with such a sweeping amount of data, what checks are in place to control its use, and whether court and congressional oversight is adequate to protect what's left of our privacy.
Domestic spying had gone beyond anything the public suspected until Snowden leaked documents to a British newspaper. Terrorism and technology have combined to make some erosion of privacy inevitable. But the public shouldn't be kept clueless about what it has sacrificed.