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Tuesday, Oct 21, 2014
Editorials

Obama backtracks on surveillance

Published:

It’s too bad President Barack Obama didn’t candidly tell Americans what they need to know about the nation’s surveillance efforts: They are essential to the nation’s security and no threat to privacy.

Instead, the president tried to appease critics by revamping the National Security Agency’s spying practices. These became controversial when they were revealed by computer analyst Edward Snowden, who now resides safely in Russia, basking in the esteem of those who believe leaking state secrets that jeopardize American lives is heroic.

Obama, to his credit, did emphasize the importance of surveillance programs and left many unchanged.

But he also proposed to overhaul — and weaken — other valuable practices.

Most significantly, the president said the government would stop storing massive amounts of telephone data and that a separate entity, such as a phone company, should keep it.

He is asking Congress, Attorney General Eric Holder and intelligence officials to consider alternative entities.

This makes little sense. Transferring responsibility for storing the data to a nongovernment entity would increase the potential for the information to be breached or abused.

Snowden’s betrayal showed cracks in the NSA’s security. Does anyone expect a separate organization to be more vigilant?

Moreover, there is no evidence this data collection has been abused. It simply is not the threat to privacy that critics claim.

The Patriot Act authorizes the government to collect and store phone “metadata” that includes the time, duration, origination and destination of calls. It does not include the content of the calls, but collecting such information into a database allows security officials to look for contacts among terrorist suspects.

Why transfer the responsibility for retaining this information to some third party that likely would have less oversight?

The president also is ordering intelligence officials to seek approval from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court before searching specific phone data.

Former U.S. Attorney General Michael Mukasey in Tuesday’s Wall Street Journal described the laborious process involved in going through the secret national security court.

He aptly writes, “To impose such a burden on the NSA as the price of simply running a number through a database that includes neither the content of calls nor the identity of callers is perverse.” It’s perplexing the president also is ordering searches limited to personal connections that are two steps removed from a terrorist target, when it had previously been three.

All this does is provide an extra buffer for terrorists.

Snowden’s revelations showed the NSA, although negligent about ensuring the trustworthiness of its contractors, was vigorously working to identify potential terrorist threats in a comprehensive way that did not violate citizens’ privacy.

The president’s surveillance retreat is unnecessary and unwise.

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