After months of denying that the National Security Agency’s surveillance programs have big problems, President Obama now has pledged greater oversight and constraints on how the agency functions. That’s essential.
Spurred by public grumbling and a report that storage of data by the government creates potential risks to public trust, privacy, and civil liberties, Mr. Obama last week ordered several reforms to limit the NSA program that collects domestic communications records, as well as the transition of those data from government control.
Some of the President’s recommendations are lamentably short on executable specifics. But the reforms he proposes can be an important step toward curtailing possible abuse and repairing the mistrust of Americans.
Rather nebulously, the President said the bulk of collected domestic data should be out of the hands of the government, but he did not identify which private entity would house that information. He gave federal officials, including Attorney General Eric Holder, Jr., until March to concoct a plan.
Mr. Obama was also vague about the restructuring and processes of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which provides judicial oversight of the nation’s intelligence community. He called on Congress to create a panel of lawyers who could argue “significant” cases independently of the government before the secretive court, but he did not explain who would determine which cases fell into that category.
In his speech, Mr. Obama reiterated his belief that NSA officials are not “abusing authorities in order to listen to your private phone calls or read your emails.” Yet the new restrictions he seeks on the agency’s surveillance programs are necessary to limit and control its vast collection of data.
Mr. Obama is forced to balance dual concerns: the perception that NSA officials could trounce on Americans’ rights to privacy, versus the reality of terrorism and the need for international and domestic intelligence to combat it. The President appropriately explained how NSA officials would be held accountable by Congress and news media if there were another attack on America — one that could have been prevented if they had only connected the dots.
It is natural for Americans to fear the reach of government into their personal lives. Yet the world has forever changed: There are potential terrorists whose words and digital footprints need to be tracked and monitored.
With the expectation that part of the government’s function is to keep its homeland safe, there must be a reasonable level of trust of those who are tasked to do that. But Americans deserve more than cosmetic cover-ups.
The NSA’s phone and Internet surveillance programs are overreaching. Mr. Obama has, however reluctantly, acknowledged the need for reform. Now he must back up those words with measurable change in how the NSA functions.