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EDITORIAL: NSA’s phone surveillance should be discontinued

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Most Americans hate it when their government tries to pull a fast one on them by shrouding its actions in secrecy.

They reason correctly that if government officials truly believed their moves were legitimate, they wouldn’t feel the need to try to hide them from the public.

Thus it was no surprise that the recent disclosure of the National Security Agency’s secretly intercepting millions of telephone records and e-mails sparked outrage by many from both ends of the political spectrum, though it also had defenders on both sides of the aisle.

Conservative columnist Cal Thomas wrote in USA Today, “There must be a balance between legitimate security and overbearing government. This is Orwellian.”

Liberal Democratic strategist Bob Beckel agreed with Thomas in the same column, writing, “The Fourth Amendment to the Constitution protects our personal records and guarantees they will be free from government intrusion.”

Dianne Feinstein, a liberal Democrat senator from California, said she saw nothing wrong with the formerly secret program, though, calling it “protecting America.” We wonder what she would think if this program had been instituted by a conservative Republican such as Richard Nixon, who became known for his misuse of surveillance records.

Conservative Washington Post columnist Kathleen Parker wrote that privacy had already been killed by online shopping, as retailers there track every move made on the Internet. “Take one little tiny peek at an item of even remote interest and you are owned by The Thing,” she wrote.

People generally know, though, that if they click on any item on the Internet they will be inundated by advertising for it and similar items for weeks to come. Most probably approve of that because it helps them find things they want to purchase.

We suspect most people do not approve of having their phone records secretly monitored.

President Obama defended the NSA surveillance program last week, saying it had saved lives. But he waited more than two weeks after the program was revealed to make this claim, causing many to doubt his truthfulness and wonder if he was just saying this to try to quell the outrage.

Obama said that the NSA has to get approval from a secret security court to monitor a terrorist suspect’s phone records.

But NBC News’ national investigative correspondent Michael Isikoff reported that “the National Security Agency has at times mistakenly intercepted the private e-mail messages and phone calls of Americans who had no link to terrorism, requiring Justice Department officials to report the errors to a secret national security court and destroy the data, according to two former U.S. intelligence officials.”

If the program and the court are both secret, though, how can anyone verify that the data have actually been destroyed?

Some Americans knowingly accepted several limitations on their privacy in the Patriot Act passed after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. We should not have to accept additional secret programs supposedly designed to protect us.

And the broad scale of the program means that even if we did accept it, it would probably not be effective, as intelligence officials have too much data to sift through in a timely manner.

That was apparently a problem before the 2001 attacks, when, as Beckel noted, “despite lots of intelligence, the FBI missed indicators leading up to 9-11.”

So we don’t believe the NSA’s formerly secret program serves any really useful purpose, but it does have the potential for great harm and should be discontinued.

Our view: Editorials reflect the opinions of the newspaper.

Your view: Tell us what you think. Send e-mail to us at editor@perrycountynews. com or mail your comments to P.O. Box 309, Tell City, IN 47586.