OVER THE past few days, the country has had to absorb a rush of information about the techniques the government uses to collect intelligence information from everything from our phones to Facebook. The rapid-fire revelations about what’s going on in the secret world of the National Security Agency and elsewhere in the executive branch’s counterterrorism operation have been contradictory at times and confusing often. One of the only things that seems sure is that the news has rekindled a national debate about what Americans should accept in the fight against the continuing threat of international terrorism.
President Obama was right on Fridaywhen he said that Americans can’t have 100 percent security and 100 percent privacy. With that in mind, Congress passed, and this page supported, a variety of measures that empowered the executive branch to collect a lot of information — with supervision.
The government should be able to intercept the communications of non-Americans outside U.S. borders to investigate possible plots. When they can demonstrate necessity to the judicial branch, law enforcement agencies should have access to information about Americans’ calls, too. At times, such judicial review should take place in secret. These, in broad strokes, are authorized by some of the more controversial provisions in the Patriot Act and amendments to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA).
That legislation also foresaw reasonable protections of Americans’ privacy. Collection of Americans’ information must be minimized under laws passed to allow targeting of foreigners. The secret court overseeing government anti-terrorism activities should have meaningful power. Congress should be kept up to date. And aside and apart from the laws, the government, as much as possible, should let Americans know what methods are being used — and to what degree they are sacrificing their liberty — so that there can be an informed and honest national discussion.
Mr. Obama and others in the executive branch have claimed over the past few days that the American intelligence community has met these standards. Nothing has demonstrated an evasion of judicial review. Many members of Congress said that they have been briefed.
But, because the system is premised on trust, the government would have a stronger case, and the debate might be less slapdash, if it revealed more. It is unclear to us why the existence of an extensive database of information about U.S. phone calls should have been secret, or why tech companies, some of which publish regular reports on user privacy, can’t reveal more basic information about their interactions with government, such as the number of FISA requests they get in a given period of time.
Finally, whether a fair balance is being struck between security and privacy depends heavily on the procedures in place to minimize the collection and retention of Americans’ data. The public ought to hear more about how that is being accomplished.