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Editorial: Privacy-security debate begins in earnest

President Barack Obama waves to the audience after

President Barack Obama waves to the audience after he spoke about NSA surveillance at the Justice Department in Washington, D.C. (Jan. 17, 2014) Credit: AP

In an extraordinary moment illustrative of the sort of nation we are, President Barack Obama spoke to the American people Friday about how the government conducts its surveillance and the need to do so, but promised changes in how it's done to maintain the public's trust and support.

Few governments are that candid and responsive on such a sensitive subject. But it's essential for a nation that's the world's model of freedom and democracy.

Obama rightly made a strong case for preserving the capabilities of the National Security Agency's bulk collection of phone records of millions of Americans -- the numbers called from and to and the time date and duration of each call -- in the battle to prevent terrorist attacks. Yet, in a concession to the blowback his administration has received, he announced what would be significant changes in how the program operates. Greater oversight and more accountability and transparency should somewhat limit the NSA's ability to tap into the phone data. That's important.

The extent of the unprecedented surveillance was unknown before former intelligence contractor Edward Snowden leaked details. Power exercised in secret is too easily abused.

The phone records metadata program was authorized by Congress, implemented by the president and approved by the courts. But the public never had a meaningful opportunity to weigh in, and communications companies were barred from making public the government's demands.

Intelligence agencies cannot do their job without secrecy, but just how much cover they should be permitted requires a critical discussion about our liberties. We'll have it now as Congress considers reauthorizing the program.

Obama's key reforms include immediately requiring the NSA to get the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court's permission before running checks in its massive database of phone records. He also imposed tighter limits on how far any investigation can expand beyond a phone number associated with a suspected terrorist. That should significantly reduce the number of people whose phone records are searched.

Congress should take Obama's advice and establish a panel of advocates from outside the government to provide a voice for privacy and civil liberties in significant cases before the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. And it should carefully weigh the options Obama said his administration will develop before March 28 to preserve the NSA's powerful data-mining capabilities without the government itself actually holding all those phone records. That's a tough one for Congress. If the government isn't going to hold all that data, who will?

Phone companies already retain customer records for some months for business purposes, but they are adamant about not hanging on to them for years. However, one alternative -- consolidating all that data in the hands of some private third party -- could perversely lessen accountability and increase the potential for abuse.

Is there any way to responsibly retain so much data on millions of people suspected of no wrongdoing? In other words, does the payoff in heightened security outweigh the cost in lost liberty?

Finally, these difficult issues, thrust upon the nation by the terrorist threat and the extraordinary pace of technological change, will get the airing the public wants.