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Security agency operating without any checks, balances

The controversy surrounding the recent revelation that the National Security Agency has been monitoring American citizens’ activities and personal information to a startling degree has reopened concerns for privacy in our free society.

According to the Associated Press, the NSA has been collecting the telephone records of hundreds of millions of Americans each day, creating a database through which it can learn whether terror suspects have been in contact with people in the U.S.

It was also revealed last week that an Internet scouring program, PRISM, allows the NSA and FBI to tap directly into nine U.S. Internet companies to gather all Internet usage. That includes audio, video, photographs, emails and traffic on search engines. The effort is designed to detect suspicious behavior that begins overseas, the AP said.

A 29-year-old high school dropout who worked for a large consulting firm claimed responsibility for disclosing the programs to a pair of newspapers, the Guardian and the Washington Post.

“The American people must be given the opportunity to evaluate the facts about this program and its broad scope for themselves, so that this debate can begin in earnest,” said Sens. Mark Udall and Ron Wyden, members of the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.

I have written in support of the Patriot Act in the past, as well as covert intelligence-gathering activities of the New York City Police Department.

New measures are required to protect the homeland from terrorists, both foreign and domestic. Some of these measures are geared toward specific groups or those with tangible links to potential terrorists. In other words, surveillance is done within a precise framework.

What the NSA is said to be doing amounts to fishing with a much larger net.

The PRISM program affects anyone who makes use of Internet firms based here in America, which is a staggering majority of the population. It’s like drawing up a list of people who enjoy a cup of coffee every day prior to 9 a.m. It’s endless.

Reaction was hostile and, unfortunately, too late to make any real difference in the debate.

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said the disclosures were “gut-wrenching to see this happen because of the huge, grave damage it does to our intelligence capabilities” and asked the Justice Department to investigate.

“I think it’s an opportunity now to have a discussion about the limits of surveillance, how we create transparency, and above all, how we protect Americans’ privacy,” said Udall.

Which leaves me asking the question, who’s minding the store?

While many administration officials and members of Congress were mounting a charge to have the person who leaked the information prosecuted, are we overlooking the bigger picture? His alleged breach of confidentiality is shameful, but the NSA’s free-wheeling espionage mission has burrowed into the affairs of other countries at a time when the United States still has to defend its honor on almost a daily basis.

“The exposure of this data grab on all foreign traffic is likely to inflame U.S. vs. Europe data privacy wars,” said Joel Reidenberg, a law professor at Fordham University Law School.

I was not aware that we were at war with Europe when it came to data privacy. We have plenty of those issues right here on our own turf. Yet this is a much bigger, much more serious concern than having your identity stolen through your Facebook account.

The disclosures about the NSA demonstrate that we have an uncontrolled intelligence campaign on our hands that has slipped through the fingers of all three branches of government. And as with most policies, the buck must stop in the Oval Office.

Not unlike the simmering IRS scandal involving the selective oversight given to conservative groups, the NSA’s activities demand an explanation. As the people whose activities are being mined for safekeeping, we have a right to know just how far the government has been allowed to proceed.


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