Whether the NSA news amounts to scandal or much ado about nothing, it represents some legitimate concerns about our government's power and the War on Terror.
Rep. John Campbell (R -- Calif.) says the NSA may have violated the law. Of course lawmakers knew that communications to foreign entities would be at subject to surveillance. It was, after all, part of the Foreign Surveillance Intelligence Act.
But Campbell explained that the Congress was assured that domestic communications were protected:
I was told that if I had a conversation with my friend in Kansas City, or in Indianapolis, or in Austin, Texas, that phone call or that email would absolutely be sacrosanct and would not be reviewed.
That is the information and the basis upon which I cast my yes vote for these bills that enabled and authorized this program.
Right now it looks to me like this net was cast very, very broadly. Broadly enough to get to my phone call to my friend in Kansas City or in Indianapolis. And that, to me, violates the information that I was told when I voted for the bill.
If an executive agency violates legislative intent, the case is not hard to make that the agency might be violating the law.
Of course the Obama administration--Jay Carney, James Clapper, and President Obama himself--has assured the American public that they can be trusted with the data. But coming from an administration that has full faith in Attorney general Eric Holder, is "satisfied" with the responsiveness of Lois Lerner, whose response was refusing to answer questions, and has shown a tendency to go after journalists who say things it does not like, those assurances should not be worth much.
Yet Obama insists that this type of surveillance is needed to keep American safe.
But Campbell's concerns represent a broad coalition that fears the degree of surveillance, not the kind. Most Americans seem to be comfortable with the NSA snooping on communication of suspected terrorists. But when that is expanded to communication of all Americans, it crosses a line.
It represents an age-old medical aphorism, "the poison is in the dose." Things that are good for you in measured amounts, like vitamins and minerals, can be deadly in large enough doses.
Whether we have crossed the poison threshold is unclear, but certainly we should trust the salesman of the medication as the sole arbiter of what the proper dosage is.
After all, its chief salesman, President Obama, repeatedly warned us about a "false choice" between security and liberty when he was running against George W. Bush in 2008. He now tells us that the threat is greater than he ever imagined.
One of the interesting things about the NSA data-gathering case is that it cuts through the party divide. It is true that many on the Right, including this commentator, were more comfortable with such controversial data-gathering under President Bush.
But several years ago, the recency of 9-11 made us more accommodating to the idea of expanded security measures. And the previous president was always much more upfront about the fact that we were fighting a war. Couched as war measures, they were easier to accept.
Now we are now much further from the attacks that prompted the surveillance, and have a president who declares that the war is winding down, even as he enlarges the surveillance programs he once derided.
The expansion raises at least one other larger issue. Consider an analogy taken from the movie, The Great Escape. Captain Ramsay, the ranking POW, tells his German overseer, "Colonel Von Luger, it is the sworn duty of all officers to try to escape. If they can't, it is their duty to cause the enemy to use an inordinate number of troops to guard them and their sworn duty to harass the enemy to the best of their ability."
The United States spends vast sums on internal security, via the NSA, FBI, DHS, TSA, and other federal agencies. Meanwhile, we are withdrawing from the actual battlefield where we can kill terrorists.
Could it be that our enemies applaud each incremental intrusion on our liberty, especially when those intrusions cost so much money, forcing us to choose between data centers and combat ready troops? Are they causing the United States to use an inordinate amount of resources to monitor communication, while they plan to continue the war in Afghanistan and elsewhere?
The presidents assurances notwithstanding, members of Congress like John Campbell, as well as the public, ought to keep asking the questions.