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Editorial: Reach of U.S. surveillance must be debated

A sign stands outside the National Security Administration

A sign stands outside the National Security Administration campus in Fort Meade, Md. (June 6, 2013) Photo Credit: AP

There's a fascinating debate to be had about whether former CIA employee Edward Snowden is a traitor or a hero for revealing that the government has collected the phone and Internet records of untold millions of Americans in the fight against terrorism. But that's an argument for another day. In the end Snowden will turn out to be a bit player in a much bigger drama.

What he exposed, however, has raised critical questions about where we are as a nation in balancing security and privacy a dozen years after 9/11. Such massive government intrusion into our private lives may ultimately prove to be justifiable as a necessary trade-off in the fight against terrorists. But now that Snowden has opened the window, let's pause, peer inside and ask, has it gone too far?

After 9/11, a shaken public widely embraced the need for increased surveillance. The mission of federal law enforcement was expanded beyond investigating crime to preventing terrorist attacks. To do that, it needed expanded authority to snoop on people suspected of plotting attacks. So the Patriot Act was enacted and amended over the years to allow officials -- armed with court orders or administrative subpoenas called national security letters -- greater authority to seize business records such as phone logs.

But when the National Security Agency began voraciously collecting the phone records of all the customers of a Verizon subsidiary and other major telecommunications companies, it went far beyond the targeting of individual suspects of international terrorism or espionage that the law authorizes. Before allowing such an escalation of the government intrusion into our private lives to continue, the nation needs to revisit the question of how much is too much.

And this time let's have a real debate. The public needs to know what the government is doing with all that data, what checks are in place to control its use, and whether current court and congressional oversight is adequate to protect what's left of our privacy.

All three branches of government have played a role in the incredible expansion of surveillance. Congress enacted the Patriot Act. The president authorized the NSA program. The secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court signed off on NSA's data grab. And the House and Senate intelligence committees responsible for oversight knew what was going on and allowed it to continue.

In recent days, many key members of Congress have voiced support for the data-collection dragnet. Senate Intelligence Committee chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said Sunday that the surveillance programs have helped bring known terrorists to justice and pointed to a 2009 plot to bomb the New York City subway as one example, although others claim it was just good old-fashioned police work.

But other members of Congress now demanding that Obama explain how this could happen were themselves missing in action. Domestic spying was pushed beyond anything the public had reason to suspect until Snowden -- a low-level computer geek who, like countless others working for government contractors, amazingly had access to so many secrets -- leaked documents to the British newspaper, The Guardian. Terrorism and technology have combined to make some erosion of privacy inevitable. But the public shouldn't be kept clueless about what it has sacrificed.