At the very least, the leaking of classified documents that exposed a National Security Agency program that monitors Internet and phone data has fostered debate about the practices.
President Barack Obama sought to assuage concerns about the domestic surveillance program during a news conference last week in which he also proposed some modest reforms to the program.
The program was authorized under the USA Patriot Act, which Congress hastily passed with little debate following the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The existence of the highly classified program came to light after former government contractor Edward Snowden leaked documentation of it.
The program has raised understandable concerns among civil libertarians and privacy advocates. In the rush to grant the president broad surveillance powers during the aftermath of 9/11, Congress gave little consideration of the important need to balance national security concerns with the personal freedoms that Americans are guaranteed under the Constitution.
Obama told the country he welcomed such a debate, but insisted he has no intention of stopping the NSA’s collection of Americans’ phone records. He proposed the creation of an outside advisory panel to review U.S. surveillance powers and an independent attorney to argue against the government during secret hearings of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which reviews requests for surveillance inside the United States.
It is important for lawmakers and administration officials to engage in an open, honest and frank debate about NSA surveillance activities conducted in the name of anti-terrorism efforts.
While protecting the nation from terrorist attacks and foreign enemies is a crucial federal responsibility, so too is ensuring that the constitutional rights of Americans are not unjustly infringed in the name of that effort.