Ky. Voices: NSA spying debate offers Obama teachable moment

Much of the furor sparked by the revelation of the National Security Agency's secret collection of phone company customer data has centered on the legality of that program.

That's an important debate, obviously. But the controversy has also forced the president to acknowledge a political reality he once denied. That reality concerns the nature of national security policy in a time of war.

As a senator in 2007, even then in presidential campaign mode, Barack Obama claimed that the Bush administration "puts forward a false choice between the liberties we cherish and the security we provide."

What he meant was that, in pursuit of national security after 9/11, the counterterrorism policies chosen by the Bush administration threatened our civil liberties.

The implication of Obama's claim was that in times of national peril an adequate defense need not necessarily result in a loss of civil liberties.

That loss of civil liberties was the "false choice" imposed on the nation by the Bush administration, according to Obama.

Obama's successful presidential campaign strategy in 2008 capitalized on the controversies surrounding the Bush administration's war policies. If the "false choice" campaign theme had been dropped in the aftermath of the successful campaign, its significance today would be slight. But the theme reappeared in the president's first inaugural address. "We reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals," Obama again declared.

The return of that theme as the president began his term of office was a disturbing sign. Did he actually believe that securing our safety from terrorist threats could be achieved without the slightest threat to our liberties?

It was crowd-pleasing rhetoric, but a flawed application of constitutional principles in a time of war.

Five years experience as commander in chief in a war environment has exposed the president to a new reality. In a major speech on counterterrorism strategy last month, Obama offered a new perspective on national security policy.

In that speech, the president no longer referred to the "false choice" between our security and our ideals. Instead, he advised the nation that his administration was "working hard to strike the appropriate balance between the need for security and preserving those freedoms that made us who we are."

An unexpected and, no doubt, unwelcomed opportunity for the president to explain just how his administration was striking that balance occurred less than two weeks after his counterterrorism speech.

An unauthorized release of information confirmed the existence of a secret NSA counterterrorism program. That program involved the collection of phone company customer data for the purpose of detecting possible terrorist plots against the U.S.

As a result of that revelation, a chorus of critics from both the left and right side of the political spectrum expressed alarm. The American Civil Liberties Union charged that the government surveillance violated our constitutional rights of free speech, association and privacy.

Stung by some of the same criticism that Obama had once directed at the Bush administration's counterterrorism policies, the president attempted to defend the NSA surveillance program.

That defense focused on the necessity of achieving a balance between security and privacy in the face of continuing threats from Islamic extremists. In a June press conference, he declared "it's important to understand that you can't have 100 percent security and 100 percent privacy." The president reminded Americans that "there are some trade-offs involved."

Has the president achieved an appropriate balance between our safety and freedom? The answer depends on whom you ask, of course.

The president's former Harvard constitutional law school professor, Laurence Tribe, claims that though the president has not exceeded the constitutional limits of his powers, "he seems to be pushing the envelope."

In the June press conference, Obama claimed that he welcomed a national debate on striking the right balance between safety and liberty. Our nation's receptiveness to such a debate was, in his view, "a sign of maturity."

If, after a full term of office, the president has finally come to realize the reality of trade-offs in the war on terrorism, it's a sign of maturity on his part also.