Editorial: A spy thriller?

As the rev­el­a­tions about our gov­ern­ment’s secret na­tion­al se­cur­ity pro­grams spread around the globe, it some­times feels like we have been sucked in­to the pages of a Robert Lud­lum spy nov­el.

In the open­ing chapter we meet the self-pro­claimed leak­er of two clas­si­fied pro­grams, Ed­ward Snowden, who is holed up some­where, pos­sibly in Hong Kong. The 29-year-old high school dro­pout with a se­cur­ity clear­ance breaks his si­lence long enough to tap out an­swers in an on­line Q-and-A.

At nearly the same time, the pres­id­ent of the United States, a Con­sti­tu­tion­al law pro­fess­or no less, sits down for an in­ter­view with PBS’ Charlie Rose. Pres­id­ent Obama re­cites his talk­ing points, ac­know­ledges the tricky bal­ance between civil liber­ties and na­tion­al se­cur­ity in a post 9/11 world and calls for a na­tion­al de­bate.

Even the Chinese gov­ern­ment gets in on the act, cri­ti­ciz­ing the United States for run­ning secret pro­grams that col­lec­ted the phone re­cords of mil­lions of its cit­izens as well as track­ing for­eign activ­ity on U.S. In­ter­net net­works. Isn’t this the same Chinese gov­ern­ment that has sys­tem­at­ic­ally denied its cit­izens ac­cess to an un­fettered In­ter­net?

There’s no telling where the plot will go next. But when you clear away all the fog and dodge, what is clear is that the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment has been caught over-reach­ing in the name of na­tion­al se­cur­ity.

The pres­id­ent has de­fen­ded these ef­forts by point­ing out the checks and bal­ances that are already in place. But a story by Alex Seitz-Wald on Salon.com tells us that the secret For­eign In­tel­li­gence Sur­veil­lance Court, which re­views and ap­proves the gov­ern­ment’s in­tel­li­gence-gath­er­ing re­quests, has hardly provided the high bar that is needed.

The secret court has not denied a single gov­ern­ment re­quest in the last four years, ac­cord­ing to re­ports made to seni­or mem­bers of Con­gress. Over the last 11 years, the court has ap­proved more than 15,000 gov­ern­ment re­quests, mod­i­fied sev­er­al dozen and re­jec­ted only 10. 

Mem­bers of Con­gress, who are also sup­posed to be an arm of over­sight, are hardly pre­pared to ask the tough ques­tions about the world of cloak and dag­ger. 

If Obama wants to calm a pub­lic that is nervous about gov­ern­ment data­bases and in­tru­sions of pri­vacy, he can be­gin by adding teeth to a secret court that has be­come a rub­ber stamp. 

That would be the be­gin­ning of what might turn out to be a satisy­ing end­ing to this pot­boil­er. ••

You can reach at lswanson@bsmphilly.com.

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