The National Security Agency's collection of the phone records of millions of Verizon customers under a secret court order is a small but disturbing window into the extensive gathering of personal information permitted under the post-9/11 Patriot Act.
The Obama administration and some members of Congress defended the snooping, insisting Thursday that it's merely business as usual. But the practice -- disclosed by the leak of a highly classified document to the British newspaper The Guardian -- confirmed the worst fears of civil libertarians and others who believe warrantless snooping on American citizens has gone too far and violates the Fourth Amendment.
Thursday evening, The Washington Post revealed an even more troublesome data mining program called PRISM, which allows the NSA to tap directly into the servers of nine major Internet companies to take photos, emails, video and other documents of targets. An algorithim screens the data to focus on "foreigners," but identifies Americans, too.
The initial Patriot Act allowed the government access to relevant communications as part of an authorized investigation of international terrorism or espionage. In 2008, amendments to the law permitted more sweeping dragnet collections only if the target was overseas. It's hard to see how indiscriminately scooping up the records of every telephone and Internet customer fits that description.
These disclosures finally put some meat on the bones of on the metadata collection the government is doing. And they raise troubling questions that must be answered. How long has the data grab been going on? What's the justification for what looks alarmingly like a fishing expedition unrelated to any specific target suspected of terrorism? How long is the information kept? Is there no line the intelligence agencies can't cross?
Without knowing a lot more about what is being done and why, the fear is that they are doing too much.