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Reactions to NSA surveillance: from outrage to cheerleading

June 07, 2013|By Jon Healey
  • The National Security Agency's headquarters in Ft. Meade, Md.
The National Security Agency's headquarters in Ft. Meade, Md. (National Security Agency…)

This week's riveting scoops in the Guardian and the Washington Post about the data-grabbing driftnet the National Security Agency has cast over the phone networks and the Internet drew hostile fire from four of the country's five largest newspapers, and a spirited defense from the fifth. The disagreement highlights the fact that there really are pros and cons to government surveillance, and there's no clear red line to alert the public when it's time to worry about the liberties they may be losing.

The strongest denunciation came, predictably, from the New York Times, whose piece feels a bit like a Taylor Swift song about an ex-boyfriend. Calling the Obama administration's defense a rehash of old platitudes, its editorial board opined: "The administration has now lost all credibility on this issue. Mr. Obama is proving the truism that the executive branch will use any power it is given and very likely abuse it."

(The original version was even more strongly worded, declaring that the administration "had lost all credibility," period. Here's the Times' explanation for the, umm, updated view.)

USA Today was nearly as forceful. "No one disputes the threat, or that the records would be useful in deterring it, or even that the record gathering was done with good intentions. But to gather so many records so indiscriminately in such secrecy sounds more like the actions of China and Iran than the world's leading protector of individual rights," the paper's editorialistas wrote. "To believe that such a program would never be abused, by law enforcement or by politicians, would be staggeringly naive."

The Washington Post and my own colleagues on the Los Angeles Times' editorial board were more reserved, calling mainly for more transparency.

"The legitimate values of liberty and safety often compete. But for the public to be able to make a reasonable assessment of whether these programs are worth the security benefits, it needs more explanation," wrote the Post, which often takes a hawkish line on national security. 

Like the other Times, we've been critical of the Patriot Act. Here's the start of Friday's editorial in this newspaper:

"There's a lot we don't know about the secret court order giving the federal government access on an 'ongoing daily basis' to millions of telephone records, and that's a large part of the problem. But we know enough from a report in Britain's Guardian newspaper, which essentially has been confirmed by officials, to conclude both that current law gives the government too much leeway to monitor the communications of its citizens, and that the Obama administration is exploiting that authority as aggressively as the George W. Bush administration did. The result is a brave new world of pervasive surveillance that Americans should find alarming."

By contrast, the Wall Street Journal's editorial board offered a full-throated defense of the surveillance in an editorial titled "Thank You for Data-Mining."

"The outrage this time seems to stem from the fact that the government is widely collecting call records, not merely those associated with a particular suspect or group. But this fear misunderstands how the program works," the Journal said Friday. "From what we know, the NSA runs algorithms over the call log database, searching for suspicious patterns over time....

"We bow to no one in our desire to limit government power, but data-mining is less intrusive on individuals than routine airport security. The data sweep is worth it if it prevents terror attacks that would lead politicians to endorse far greater harm to civil liberties."

(The Journal's reaction is a reminder that editorial boards aren't monolithic but are collections of individuals with particular and occasionally conflicting ways of looking at the world. Here, the trust expressed by the folks who write the Journal's national security editorials, who favor a strong executive branch, clashes with the libertarian outlook of the board members who write about healthcare and tech issues.)

The Journal's editorial echoes the points made by Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper, who issued three statements Thursday night in defense of the surveillance work disclosed by the Guardian and the Post. The statements are extraordinary, considering that the programs he discussed are classified. But the thrust of Clapper's defense is that the feds look at only a portion of the data they collect, with a (secret) court's (secret) approval, in pursuit of "a reasonable suspicion, based on specific facts, that the particular basis for the query is associated with a foreign terrorist organization."

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