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Editorial: The NSA is watching. Are we?

Yes, we need intense surveillance. But choices about

Yes, we need intense surveillance. But choices about how much is too much should be made with eyes wide open. Credit: Tribune Content Agency / Michael Osbun

Be careful whom you call, chat up on Skype or friend on Facebook. Pick wrong, and all your digital communications are likely to be scooped up in the dragnet of the National Security Agency.

That includes phone calls, every email sent or received, every photograph shared online, every Internet audio or video chat, every website browsed. And then, perhaps, comes a knock on your door by a government agent.

We know the government is collecting phone call records and, in certain circumstances, scrutinizing them, and all the rest of this information involving millions of unsuspecting Americans. And there's likely a lot more we don't know.

The vast expansion of electronic surveillance since 9/11 has set the nation on a troubling course. Whatever privacy we have left in this live-out-loud digital era is quietly being invaded by the federal government. Unchecked, that could erode the very essence of what Americans have traditionally defined as what it means to be free.

The unprecedented scrutiny may help thwart would-be terrorists. But how much privacy we're willing to sacrifice for that security is a balance that needs to be reset. And to make that call, the public has to know more about what the government's hi-tech spies are up too. Unfortunately, officials have gone to great lengths to keep us in the dark.

Most of what we know about the government's surveillance we learned courtesy of Edward Snowden, the former NSA and CIA contractor who leaked the information to The Guardian, a British news organization. The ensuing uproar has forced the Obama administration to declassify some heavily redacted documents and finally talk publicly about surveillance in an effort to quiet the outcry.

Even what we already know is alarming. For at least six years the NSA has been vacuuming up the telephone records of millions of Americans -- maybe all Americans -- and collecting them in a massive database. Included are the numbers called from any particular phone, the numbers calling to that phone, and the time and duration of each call. What's not included, however, are the names and addresses of anyone making or receiving calls or the content of the conversations.

To dip into the data and construct an intimate picture of an individual's associations requires a warrant from the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court citing a " reasonable articulable suspicion" of a terrorism connection.

NSA officials said that happened only 300 times in 2012. But once initiated, the review of call records for a single phone can grow monstrously to involve the records of millions of additional phones. Starting with that one phone, NSA officials are allowed to hop to the records of everyone called from that phone and everyone who made a call to that phone. That means if the initial phone targeted for surveillance was used to connect with 40 other phones, the NSA could hop to the call records for those 40 phones and scrutinize them as well. In the three such hops NSA policy allows, an investigation that began with one suspect could grow wildly and snare those far removed from the target.

Under a different surveillance program called PRISM, the NSA and FBI are monitoring the online activity of foreign terrorism suspects, and anyone they contact in the United States. But administration officials acknowledge that countless additional Americans have been "unwittingly" monitored too, because they can't always be sure if the Internet traffic captured originated inside or outside the country.

Has all the spying made us safer? There have been 54 cases where the two programs played a role in disrupting terrorist plots, NSA Deputy Director John Inglis said Wednesday. Twelve were in the United States, including a plot to bomb the New York City subways. But even Inglis had to concede that it's impossible to make the case that, but for the programs, the plots would not have been thwarted.


This is not rogue, off-the-books spying. Congress allowed for these programs when it reauthorized the USA Patriot Act in 2007. The Bush and Obama administrations implemented them, and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court signed off. Only the public was out of the loop. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and a few other members of Congress tried to sound the alarm but were muzzled by secrecy rules.

At first, congressional leaders defended the snooping. But the pushback from both the left and right has forced Congress to consider more aggressive oversight. Greater transparency is essential. A statistical report should be required annually so the public will know the scope of the snooping. Companies now gagged by law, some of which resisted the court orders behind the scenes, should be free to report how many of their customers' records they've been ordered to allow the NSA to access.

The secrecy shrouding the work of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court should be lifted for anything beyond granting individualized warrants. The public needs to know, for instance, how it decided the call records of every phone in America were relevant to a terrorism investigation. Rulings that expand the reach of surveillance and diminish our constitutional protections should be disclosed.

Yes, we need intense surveillance. But choices about how much is too much should be made with eyes wide open.