Nation is overdue for a discussion of how much eavesdropping we need - The Buffalo News

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Nation is overdue for a discussion of how much eavesdropping we need

Continuing revelations about the reach of the National Security Agency, from vacuuming up information on telephone calls, Internet traffic and emails to collecting information from social media, haven’t generated near the outrage that has reverberated from Germany after our ally learned the chancellor’s cellphone had been tapped.

After the feigned shock that the United States would do such a thing wears off, perhaps there can be an honest discussion about spying.

The dealings of the once-shadowy NSA have come to light in a series of leaks from former intelligence contractor Edward Snowden. The documents he copied from NSA files detail the extraordinary lengths the agency has gone to in collecting all manner of communications information.

Back in July, President Obama tried to brush off European criticism of alleged U.S. eavesdropping on European Union diplomats with the suggestion that all nations spy on each other.

The “everyone does it” argument is not a sufficient reason. It might have been suspected that the NSA would keep tabs on the leaders of Russia, Iran and North Korea, but it turns out America also is interested in our friends, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Merkel has managed to maintain a diplomatic tone, urging that the eavesdropping not hinder European Union-U.S. trade negotiations, even though her own party has called on her to freeze talks.

The administration now reportedly is considering ending surveillance of friendly leaders, a no-brainer considering the devastating impact of the Merkel phone taps becoming public knowledge. Our allies are angry with us, forcing their security arms to rethink how much they want to cooperate with the United States.

Supporters say the NSA’s activities are the necessary price of keeping us safe from terrorist threats. But there’s little doubt that the agency’s penchant for collecting sweeping amounts of information both near and far is, in some instances, profoundly unsettling.

The government does have a responsibility to keep Americans safe. However, that has to be balanced against citizens’ right to privacy. The difficulty is finding the proper balance between safety and privacy. It is a complex issue that has to be aired. More needs to be known, and that is perhaps where leading Democratic lawmaker, Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, will play a role.

Feinstein, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, has stated that she does not believe the United States should collect phone calls or emails of friendly presidents or prime ministers.

And although the senator has been a defender of the administration’s surveillance policies, she has said her committee would begin a “major review of all intelligence collection programs.”

Governments have been spying on each other from time immemorial. To what extent the United States should keep doing it is the question for today. We need a discussion of the limits to spying, instead of just letting the NSA decide. It’s a matter of national security.

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