Keep spying, but keep our trust too

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The whirlwind of stories coming out about the National Security Agency and its meta-data mining program for phone records and Internet communications are difficult to digest, as evidenced by the political and philosophical debates they have triggered.

NSA defenders attempt to make the case that the sweeping program is necessary and less intrusive than it may seem. But for many Americans, revelations that their communication records are being collected for any reason are bone-chilling. An all-seeing, all-powerful federal government is just plain creepy.

And there are powerful reasons for that, starting with an irrefutably growing mistrust in the government. It’s not only things like the IRS scandals, but the sense that the federal government has been relentlessly growing and expanding its reach through a vast array of bureaucracies.

A recent Rasmussen poll found that Americans, by a 59-26 percent margin, oppose the government’s meta-data gathering efforts. And interestingly, poll respondents that Rasmussen called the “political class” — people associated with government — support those efforts by a 71-18 percent margin.

That’s a pretty huge gap that reflects the mistrust of the governed.

But there is still a deep reservoir of good will that exists in the American public for our leaders, as well as a persistent understanding that the world is a dangerous place. Maybe that’s why in another recent poll (this one by the Pew Research Center), 56 percent of Americans said tracking millions of phone records is an appropriate way for the government to investigate terrorism, while just 41 percent were opposed.

Gen. Keith Alexander, the director of the National Security Agency, went a long way toward reassuring the public Wednesday in testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee, that the government is not invading anyone’s privacy without a court order and that NSA and other agencies are only targeting potential terrorists just like they were ordered to do by the American public after 9/11.

Alexander stressed the fact that the meta-data collected by NSA only includes phone numbers, not names, and that for government officials to look at any individual record within the collected meta-data they would need a specific warrant justifying that search. The process certainly makes sense when you realize that if the information were not collected and stored, it would quickly vanish and thus impede our ability to connect the bad guys to each other.

And you can absolutely bet that if another major terror attack were successfully launched on U.S. soil, everyone in Congress and on Main Street would be demanding answers as to why we missed it!

So what we need now is not just a knee-jerk reaction that will weaken our national security and embolden our enemies. Don’t publicly hog-tie the NSA and give terrorists the confidence to know they can’t be tracked.

Instead, let’s work to restore the public’s trust in government so that Americans don’t have to worry that information will be used improperly by nameless faceless officials hidden in some agency somewhere in the bowels of the federal bureaucracy.

That means, the NSA, Congress and the White House — not to mention the IRS — all need to accept a demonstrable dose of accountability when there is wrongdoing, as well as work toward true transparency so that Americans can understand what their government is doing on their behalf.

People in the private sector marvel at how incompetence, gross malfeasance, financial recklessness and a complete disregard of what’s right and wrong more often seem to just get a pass in government. There never seems to be wholesale house cleaning when a bureaucracy goes astray.

In the case of the NSA, it doesn’t appear there has been any unlawful actions, partly because meta-data collection is legal. But still, Americans have plenty of reasons to wonder if someday NSA surveillance will be abused, and they have every right to wonder whether wholesale data collection is necessary and effective and how much it costs. It certainly didn’t stop the Boston Marathon bombers.

Editorials represent the majority opinion of the Daily Inter Lake’s editorial board.

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