Our View: President, Congress must balance privacy, security

August 12, 2013 

It took too long, but President Obama is proposing some tweaks in the government's massive surveillance of Americans.

If Congress goes along — as it should — the revisions will be a start to making the spying programs more transparent and accountable.

But this is only a beginning. Americans need to continue pressing the president and Congress to guarantee our privacy is better safeguarded. More limits are required to ensure the National Security Agency's snooping focuses on its stated goal — to thwart plots by foreign terrorists.

To be clear, Obama isn't proposing to substantially dial back surveillance. For instance, he would not end daily collection of bulk data on domestic phone calls; rather, he would add more oversight and auditing.

Still, the proposals announced Friday mark a turnaround for the president, who initially was far too dismissive about concerns raised by disclosures by Edward Snowden, the leaker who has been granted temporary asylum in Russia.

In a June 7 news conference in San Jose, Obama blamed media "hype" for the uproar and nonchalantly reassured Americans that "Big Brother" is not listening to their phone calls.

He sang a different tune on Friday. "It's not enough for me, as president, to have confidence in these programs," Obama rightly said. "The American people need to have confidence in them as well."

It's increasingly clear that Americans don't. Polls show growing skepticism, fueled by further leaks by Snowden and by dogged reporting by journalists revealing that surveillance is far more invasive than the public has been told.

For instance, just the day before Obama's about-face, The New York Times reported that the NSA is not only intercepting emails and texts between U.S. citizens and foreigners under surveillance overseas, but also searching American electronic communications into and out of the country for any mention of people or subjects that might be linked to terrorism, no matter how innocent.

Some changes Obama plans to make by executive order. He says he will declassify more secret documents stating the government's rationale for surveillance. He will appoint an officer in charge of privacy and civil liberties at the NSA, and will create a task force of outside experts to review the programs and advise the government.

Other changes require approval by Congress. For instance, the president put his support behind a proposal to revise how the super-secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court operates by appointing an advocate to raise constitutional issues. Now, only federal prosecutors get to address the court, which helps explain why the government almost always gets its way.

While Obama is finally addressing some concerns, he is still following, not leading, on this issue. He certainly got a wake-up call when it took heavy lobbying by the White House to barely stop a move in the U.S. House last month to defund the NSA program that collects and analyzes domestic phone records unless it was limited to specific individuals under investigation.

The president also appears to have been influenced by a series of meetings with civil liberties advocates and technology industry leaders.

While it's to his credit that he listened to critics, he should have initiated those conversations long ago.

This is not merely about changing the public's perception of the surveillance programs, as the president seems to want. This must truly be about reaching a better balance between security and privacy.

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