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Obama, Congress should curb NSA

With a federal judge’s ruling last week that the National Security Agency’s massive collection of U.S. citizens’ telephone records is legal, President Barack Obama is getting timely cover to ignore an expert panel’s recommendations for overhaul. It would be wrong and unwise for the president to do so.

Obama himself has already given the best advice to follow: “Just because we can do something doesn’t mean we should,” he said in recent comments about the NSA snooping and the 46 recommendations from a panel he appointed to assess the program in wake of Edward Snowden’s leaks of widespread snooping.

U.S. District Judge William Pauley’s ruling in New York is in sharp contrast to a decision a week earlier by U.S. District Judge Richard J. Leon in Washington. Leon called the NSA program “almost Orwellian” and declared it unconstitutional. Some view the decisions as political, given that Pauley was appointed by President Bill Clinton, a Democrat, and Leon was appointed by President George W. Bush, a Republican. Regardless, both rulings are expected to be appealed, and the matter is likely to be decided at the appellate level or in the Supreme Court.

But neither the president nor Congress should leave this issue to be resolved by what the government can legally get away with. They can and should decide what is appropriate and right.

And it is appropriate and right to curb the NSA’s out-of-control eavesdropping.

The expert panel Obama tapped to review the program seems to strike the correct balance in upholding citizens’ privacy rights and protecting citizens against terrorism. The suggested changes to surveillance law and the intelligence court that rules on government surveillance requests don’t dismantle the programs but provide better oversight and controls against unnecessary intrusions and abuses. That’s particularly true of recommendations to require judicial approval to obtain Americans’ financial, phone and other records.

Advisers and some panel members have said that Obama appears inclined to adopt many of the recommendations – and he should. They also note that some recommendations will require changes by Congress, and that there will be significant push back from intelligence agencies and others to retain the status quo.

That push back was clearly heard this week from former NSA chief Michael Hayden, the retired general who headed the agency under George W. Bush from 1999 to 2005. Hayden urged Obama to reject many of the recommendations. He defended the NSA programs as effective and properly overseen by congressional intelligence committees and a special court.

“I really don't know what problem we're trying to solve by changing how we do this,” he said.

The president will be assessing input from a number of groups and individuals on the NSA program as he reaches a decision on what to do. But, again, he should guided by his own earlier advice: “Just because we can do something doesn’t mean we should.”

The NSA program parts with that advice rather decisively.

And as the panel’s report notes, it doesn’t have to do so for national security reasons: The mass telephone data collection “was not essential to preventing attacks and could readily have been obtained in a timely manner using conventional [court] orders,” it said.

Obama and Congress should rein in this government surveillance program.

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