NSA vs. ACLU: Split Decision

The revelation that the federal government has been secretly gathering records on the phone calls and online activities of millions of Americans and foreigners seems not to have alarmed most Americans. A poll conducted by the Pew Research Center over the four days immediately after the news first broke found that just 41 percent of Americans deemed it unacceptable that the Security Agency “has been getting secret court orders to track telephone calls of millions of Americans to investigate terrorism.”

So writes James B. Rule in an op-ed in the New York Times.

One can extrapolate from the 41 percent in the poll that Americans are essentially split over the issue of the NSA’s collection of data from telephone and internet records. Perhaps this is a good time for a public issue to be settled by the courts. It certainly seems as if it will be, as the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) will be challenging the NSA (National Security Agency) and/or whoever is most responsible for the data-mining decision.

President Obama has said that he supports the work of the NSA, and his actions have certainly affirmed that support. In light of Edward Snowden’s leaking of the existence and extent of the program, he may well want to trim his sails and take a position more in support of preserving human rights. This is clearly a tough issue for President Obama, and for many Americans. The president is not unfamiliar with how to acknowledge his reluctance to take a definitive decision on a difficult issue. During his 2008 campaign, he was asked at what point a baby gets “human rights.”  While supporting a woman’s right to choose, he said that an answer to that question was “above his pay grade.” Some will say that he was punting on the issue, but others will agree with him that the question is too difficult for any human being to answer, and that to try to do so is foolish.

So it is with the current issue involving “dueling rights” of security and privacy. Like many on the left, I am queasy about this kind of collection of data by the federal government. On the other hand, if it is true that dozens of plots have been foiled by NSA data-mining, then I would be more willing to forfeit some privacy. The person who probably has the best bird’s-eye view of the situation is the President. While I trust him to make sound macro-decisions, I shudder at the thought of another Richard Nixon or George W. Bush being in a position to set broad policy for the NSA and related agencies. My one wish, as the dialogue continues on the issue, is that all participants step back from the vice of certainty. It’s really important to listen to opposing points of view.