National security surveillance and the price of public safety

By Arthur I. Cyr

“…bulk collection of private data is undermining Americans’ constitutional rights,” is how United States Senator Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) reacted to the ongoing controversy regarding the National Security Agency (NSA). The massive program responsible for accumulating phone records includes people not only in the United States but around the globe, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel and other leaders.

Wyden, a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, has become prominent in the debate. This reflects not only the extent of continuing public alarm about the activity, but also the fact that Congress is exercising growing policy leadership in this realm as in others, including fiscal and budgetary matters.

That is an important reality as U.S. President Barack Obama moves through a lame-duck second term, characterized by general aloofness from the politics of getting things done. This contrasts with the electoral process of addressing and persuading the public, which Obama especially enjoys, and at which he excels. In a highly anticipated, and promoted, Jan. 17 speech at the Justice Department, the President outlined a variety of changes to current procedures, reflecting recommendations of the new report from the Presidential Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies. This panel was announced in early August, after the story broke in June that the NSA was collecting massive electronic data on individuals. The NSA may continue to collect telephone records, but under new restrictions. These include a directive that the agency must secure judicial permission to access information on individuals – except in cases of emergency. Formal national security letters seeking such information will eventually be made public.

The U.S. will cease spying on leaders of allied nations, except — again — when such activity is deemed important for national security. The State Department will oversee diplomatic implications of data collection. The White House will appoint an official to help protect privacy, along with an outside panel to defend civil liberties concerns before the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. This and other points reflect Obama’s emphasis last August on limiting surveillance, not protecting national security.