The revelation that the National Security Agency is tracking every phone call each American makes, and broadly mining Internet data puts President Obama at the center of yet another controversy. He and supporters in the Republican leadership, not Edward Snowden, are making themselves villains.
Two sets of issues are central. Do NSA practices strike a reasonable balance between the threats posed by global terrorism and the right to privacy? Are these the least intrusive necessary? Are safeguards against abuse adequate?
Will Edward Snowden be thrown in jail for revealing classified information under the Espionage Act or other statutes?
The president argues the nation needs to strike a balance between security and liberty. As with free speech—you can't yell fire in a movie theater—the right to privacy is not absolute.
However, if Americans are going to have a reasoned discussion, they must know what the government is up to, especially when it collects broad information that could be used to paint a sophisticated picture of each American's political leanings, sexual orientation and flavor of ice cream they prefer.
The president can't have it both ways—engage in an informed dialogue but not reveal the practices that need to be discussed. We can't know if these practices are the least intrusive necessary if the NSA does not list out its feasible options and potential risks, explain why it chose metadata, and enter into a public debate with the technology community alternative strategies.
Obama's second argument is that Americans can trust him and the government not to abuse metadata—not to connect the dots about the details of ordinary folk's lives to pigeonhole and persecute them.
The "trust me" argument simply does not wash. The IRS controversy is all about government employees exploiting private information—for example, illegally providing environmental activists with data about the political contributions of farmers, and harassing folks for simply wishing to organize or be part of conservative civic groups.