How much spying needed for security?

Published 12:00 pm Saturday, June 15, 2013

Ever since the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, Americans have vacillated between their desire for safety and their desire for privacy.

The federal government, whose spying on its own citizens has been further exposed this past week, says Americans can’t have it both ways. If they want the government to protect them from terrorism, which it has done a good job of in the 12 years since the suicide hijackings, some inconveniences have to be accepted and some privacy forfeited.

The tension, though, is over how much snooping is necessary.

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It has been known since 2005 that the nation’s security apparatus has been collecting phone records of U.S. citizens, trying to ferret out possible terrorists. What wasn’t known until last week is how vast that snooping operation has become.

The federal government has been looking at an estimated 3 billion phone calls a day, compiling a vast database of who is calling whom and when. Supposedly, only numbers, not names, interest the government; they only eavesdrop on a select number of conversations when calling patterns have raised suspicions; and all of this surveillance is being overseen by a special but secret court.

Separately, another highly classified program has been broadly monitoring email communications of U.S. residents, not just the traffic patterns of the messaging but the actual content of them.

President Obama has defended the domestic surveillance programs, which started under his predecessor, George W. Bush. The president says it’s a necessary tool in deterring acts of terrorism before they happen.

Maybe it is.

But it rightfully makes citizens uncomfortable — that is, until someone blows up a building, and then civil liberties take a back seat.

There is no easy solution to this.

Americans should distrust government spying on its own citizens. The practice is an infringement on the constitutional protection against unreasonable searches, and it’s open to being abused in ways that have nothing to do with national security.

Yet, Americans should also want their government to be proactive, to catch those who are plotting against our country and to stop them before they can carry out their evil designs. That requires using all reasonable tools at the government’s disposal, including the technology that enables sophisticated intelligence-gathering.