Herald-Leader Editorial

Reform NSA data collection; implement steps to protect privacy

January 9, 2014 

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    Should Edward Snowden be pardoned or given a deal for return of some security documents?

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Suddenly, Edward Snowden doesn't seem so guilty. The whistleblower — or traitor, depending on whom you ask — who revealed unprecedented surveillance by the National Security Agency last June appears at least partially vindicated by two federal court rulings and the extensive reforms suggested by a presidential panel.

"In our view, the current storage of the government of bulk meta-data creates potential risks to public trust, personal privacy and civil liberty," the panel of five intelligence and legal experts wrote in its 300-page report.

We agree, and encourage President Barack Obama to implement the panel's direly needed reforms.

The New York Times editorial board and Sen. Rand Paul usually don't agree on much; but both think that Snowden doesn't deserve a lengthy sentence for revealing actions that Judge Richard Leon, a Bush appointee, wrote was "almost Orwellian" in an opinion issued last month.

"History is going to judge that he revealed great abuses of our government and great abuses of our intelligence community," Paul said of Snowden last Sunday.

Paul deserves praise for taking a principled stand at odds with what most of Washington thinks of the unfettered government access to the private information of millions.

But whatever becomes of Snowden's criminal trial, a serious rethinking of the country's runaway military and intelligence complexes is more important. Obama is expected to announce soon which of the 46 panel recommendations he will support.

The most necessary reform the panel issued, amending the business records section of the Patriot Act, would stop the federal government's collection of phone data on nearly every American based on its secret interpretation of the statute.

Instead, the panel recommends that the data be held with the private providers and only be sent to the government under a court order.

Such a move would do much to restore the people's faith in our constitutional government — one where the Fourth Amendment guarantee for "the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures" operates with full force.

The panel's proposed reforms of the Federal Intelligence Surveillance Court, the secret court that authorizes surveillance on American citizens, are also essential.

Installing a privacy advocate in order to make the proceedings actually adversarial is sorely needed. The recommendation to divide nominating responsibilities among all the Supreme Court justices, and not just the chief justice, would also balance the ideological composition of the court — 10 of the 11 justices elevated from the federal judiciary to the special court were appointed by Republican presidents.

Reforming the infamous national security letters is yet another recommendation that the government would do well to heed.

Mandating that intelligence agencies release aggregate summaries of their actions to the public — as well as detailed reports to the congressional committees overseeing them — is critical to restoring the trust and transparency that Americans expect from their government.

"America is at a crossroads," the president said in his May speech at National Defense University that was supposed to mark a shift in counterterrorism policy.

He went on to say that the changes made during the Bush administration "raised difficult questions about the balance that we strike between our interests in security and our values of privacy. And in some cases, I believe we compromised our basic values."

He can begin to redress those compromised values today. All he has to do is follow his own panel's advice.


Tell us what you think

Should Edward Snowden be pardoned or given a deal for return of some security documents?

Respond at Kentucky.com/opinions or at HLOpinions on Facebook.

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