The message to Americans from Washington this week — trust us to do the right thing — is as unsatisfying as it is self-serving. That is the response from the Obama administration and congressional leaders to the disclosure that the National Security Agency regularly sweeps phone records and data from the nation's largest telephone and Internet service providers, invading the privacy of millions of Americans. The White House should provide more detail about the extent and effectiveness of these programs. This is not about choosing between personal privacy and national security but about how best to preserve both.
President Barack Obama and leaders in Congress defended the programs as appropriate and valuable tools in the fight against terror. Some labeled former national security contractor Edward J. Snowden, who revealed the programs last week, as a traitor. The NSA chief, Gen. Keith Alexander, credited the programs with foiling dozens of terrorist plots at home and abroad but provided few details.
One program calls for telephone giant Verizon to regularly turn over the call logs of all of its U.S. customers. A second program collects emails, photographs and other data exchanged on Internet sites by foreign users. While noncitizens don't have the same constitutional protections of privacy, officials acknowledge the program also has swept up data held by American users.
The administration points out the government records the phone numbers used to dial or receive calls, and the time, location and duration of the calls — not the actual conversations. That distinction is beside the point. Intelligence agencies still have a blueprint of every caller's whereabouts, schedule, range of contacts, personal transaction history and other confidential information. And the wholesale nature of the data mining still amounts to spying on the lawful activity of innocent Americans.
The checks and balances on the programs are too lenient and too secret. Congress signed off, and the secret national security court, known as FISA, approved every request by the government last year for electronic surveillance. The NSA avoided congressional requests for public answers this week, reserving that exchange for classified sessions on Capitol Hill. Some level of secrecy is required, of course, but Americans deserve more answers than they have been given.
The American Civil Liberties Union sued the administration Tuesday over the phone logging program. Technology giants Google, Facebook and Microsoft have asked the government to release them from a gag rule and allow them to publicly explain their role in responding to these requests. That is only fair and practical now that the program's existence is public. The administration also should further explain why the records should not be sought by a more narrowly tailored court order.
The nation cannot use the fear of terrorism as a blanket excuse to avoid striking a more reasonable balance between security and privacy, especially as the government insists that the war on terror is a perpetual campaign. Congress has an obligation to carve out a more reasonable framework for protecting both the nation and its principles. It can begin by shedding light and a critical eye on an intelligence-gathering operation that is too broad and too easy to abuse.