Editorial: Obama’s gift: An end to excessive snooping

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All we want for Christmas, President Obama, is our civil liberties back. We urge you to waste no time in carrying out the new recommendations of a panel of advisers for rolling back the government’s ability to snoop virtually at will on ordinary Americans.

We live in a dangerous world in dangerous times, but in the jittery aftermath of 9/11 our nation all too casually compromised civil liberties in the name of national security; it is well past time we rebalanced the scales. In the words of the advisers’ report: “Free nations must protect themselves, and nations that protect themselves must remain free.”

The president has the power to carry out many of the report’s 46 recommendations by executive order, meaning he can do so almost immediately. Other recommendations require that Congress actually does something — but here, too, we see reason to hope.

Critics of surveillance overreach, especially by the National Security Agency and the FBI, have become a force to be reckoned with across the political spectrum, from tea party groups to high-tech companies to the ACLU. Recent revelations as to the sheer scope of the NSA’s snooping — tracking, for example, every phone call made by every American — have left Americans of all political stripes stunned.

The report, written by five intelligence and legal experts including a University of Chicago Law School professor, recommends that the NSA no longer be allowed to keep a massive database that includes nearly every phone call made and received in the country. Instead, the NSA would have to obtain a court order each time it wants access to such information for “queries and data mining.”

The special court that rules on such requests — the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court — also would be reconstituted so as to make it less of a rubber stamp. No longer would Supreme Court Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr., alone appoint members to the surveillance court, and no longer would the court hear arguments only from one side — the Justice Department. All Supreme Court justices would have a hand in selecting members of the surveillance court, and a “public interest advocate to represent the interests of privacy and civil liberties” would participate in arguments before the court.

A particularly welcome recommendation is that the FBI be limited in its ability to use “national security letters,” which require no court permission, to obtain business records — including library records — about someone.

Implicit in the new report’s recommendations is an understanding that intelligence agencies tend to do whatever they think they can do, regardless of the real necessity, rationalizing their every action as essential to their mission. It is the nature of the beast. If the NSA can collect every American’s phone records, it will, telling itself it is necessary to keep us safe.

It’s important to stress, then, that the report reflects both a healthy skepticism about too much snooping and a strong respect for continued justified surveillance. The report flatly states that the phone-logging program was unnecessary in stopping terrorist attacks, but it stresses that “the intelligence community” must be allowed “to do what must be done to respond to genuine threats.”

For too long in the wake of 9/11, the United States has gone down the path of eroding civil liberties. With this report, we may be turning in a new and truly American direction. The president and Congress have been given a great opportunity to bolster the confidence of the American people that their liberties are being protected.

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