WASHINGTON — The hardest thing in an argument is to acknowledge competing truths. We know that our government will continue with large-scale surveillance programs to prevent future terrorist attacks. We also know that such programs have operated up to now with too little public scrutiny and insufficient concern over their long-term implications for our rights and our privacy.
The response to Edward Snowden’s leaks about what our government has been up to should thus be a quest for a new and more sustainable balance among security, privacy and liberty. And the fact that some people in each of our political parties have switched sides on these questions is actually an opportunity. We can have a debate on the merits, liberated from the worst aspects of partisanship.
A good place to start would be the bill introduced on Tuesday by Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR), requiring the attorney general to declassify significant opinions by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. To have a thoughtful discussion, we need to know what authority our government has, and claims to have, under the PATRIOT Act and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA).
Merkley notes that his bill was carefully drawn to protect intelligence “sources and methods.” It focuses on the release of the court’s substantive legal interpretations. Among the bill’s seven other sponsors are two Republicans. One of the pair, Sen. Dean Heller of Nevada, said in a statement that “ensuring Americans’ safety is one of our government’s most important responsibilities.” The FISA court bill is “a measured approach” toward more transparency.
Other disclosures are also called for. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) chairs the intelligence committee and is a strong defender of the surveillance programs. She has requested that Gen. Keith Alexander, the director of the National Security Agency, declassify more material so we can know those instances where data-mining efforts might have stopped terrorist plots. Here again, citizens are entitled to know more than we do now.
My hunch is that few Americans were entirely shocked at the extent to which the intelligence services have been ingesting huge gobs of information. We already know that our privacy is compromised by the gathering of Big Data by institutions outside government. As Ross Douthat noted in a perceptive New York Times column on Sunday, “it is practically impossible to protect your privacy … from the service providers and social media networks.”