In Washington, FBI director Robert Mueller warned the Senate Judiciary Committee that curtailing the National Security Agency’s system of tracking phone calls would damage the nation’s ability to thwart terrorist attacks. Judging by the depth of the committee’s questions, it’s doubtful that the program’s harshest critics were convinced.
In Berlin, Obama heard from German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who pressed the president about what some see as the program’s intrusions on the privacy, particularly the privacy of Germans whose phone records may be tracked by the NSA. At one point, Merkel said, “Although we do see the need,” such activities must be balanced by “due diligence” to guard against unwarranted invasions of privacy. “Free democracies live off people having a feeling of security,” she added, according to The New York Times.
Merkel’s words are spot-on correct. Free democracies in which governments keep tabs — be they phone records, not phone conversations — on their citizens lose a little of that freedom.
It’s unfortunate that that is the world in which we live in.
Our opinion hasn’t changed: the Obama administration, despite its criticisms of its predecessor’s warrantless wiretapping, isn’t going to tone down its efforts without a fight. The government, under the umbrella of uncovering terrorist plots before they occur, shows no sign of willingly turning back the clock.
Reality and perspective are key. Governments have spied on friends and foes since the beginning of modern civilizations. The NSA program falls into that category.
That said, it’s interesting that the Times reported on Gen. Keith B. Alexander, the director of the NSA, who is preparing a report for Congress on the “advantages and disadvantages” of altering the program. Nevertheless, it’s foolish to expect either the White House, the FBI or the NSA to succumb to public pressure and soften their approach.
We wish this weren’t the case.
What must occur — without deviation — is a continued watchdog approach over the government’s use of its surveillance powers. Congress is right to pepper Mueller with questions and demand accountability. Merkel is to be commended for questioning the president about the program and its effect on her nation, both good and bad. And Americans should feel no shame in wondering how far the government should go to keep this nation safe.
There are limits, of course. As the German chancellor said, free democracies exist within a sense of safety. As always, balancing those competing interests is proving extremely difficult.