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The question of limiting surveillance should undergo a thorough debate

Washington’s program of collecting telephone records is a profoundly unsettling one. Perhaps more than any other revelation about government monitoring of private information, this one seems to announce that Aldous Huxley (Brave New World) and George Orwell (1984) were more prescient that we had imagined.

And, yet: When all four of Western New York’s congressional representatives – two Democrats, two Republicans – vote to support the program, it is wise to at least pause in the denunciations. That creates a moment to consider the possibility that the program truly is critical to protecting Americans’ security at a time when terrorism is too attractive an idea to too many people.

The four members of Congress – Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo; Chris Collins, R-Clarence; Louise Slaughter, D-Fairport; and Tom Reed, R-Corning – all voted last week to defeat an amendment that would have barred the National Security Agency from collecting the phone records of anyone not targeted in an active investigation. The House defeated the amendment by a vote of 217-205, and in that it was a clear reflection of Americans’ unease with the program.

These four rarely agree on much, at all, and the fence-jumping occurred throughout the House, a chamber more politically divided than at any time in memory. That doesn’t mean the program is automatically defensible, but it does show that the issues – safety vs. privacy, openness vs. secrecy – are serious and complex and need to be approached in that way.

Some constitutional issues are comparatively easy. Freedom of speech is a cornerstone of American life and is fiercely protected, though even it has its limits. The right to vote for all American citizens needs to be shielded from assault.

Other matters are more difficult. While it is possible to overreact to the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, it is incontrovertible that Americans learned that day that they are targets and that, when our guard is down, a handful of people can cause unimaginable harm. We know – or should know – that vigilance is essential.

The question – it is always the question when fundamental rights come into conflict – is where the balance lies. And as Higgins noted in Friday’s Buffalo News, that can’t be determined in a 20-minute public debate on the floor of the House. That’s not serious.

“Program reforms certainly may be warranted,” he said, “but I think they should be done within the context of the Intelligence Committee, where both classified and unclassified information can be taken into account to get this thing right.” Higgins is the ranking Democrat on the House subcommittee on Counterterrorism and Intelligence.

Americans need to know more about this program and, because some level of secrecy may be warranted, they also need to know that the law authorizing the program doesn’t go further than necessary, that those operating the program are operating within the constraints of that law, and that an independent body – beyond the secret, rubber-stamp Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court – is overseeing it.

Congress and the Obama administration will be making a serious mistake if they disregard the depth and breadth of resistance to the surveillance program. If it truly is necessary, the government needs the support of Americans to ensure its continued operations. But critics of the program are making a mistake, too, when they insist that a deeply gray area is, in fact, black or white.