Clipping the NSA: Obama attempts to curb surveillance excess

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It’s way past time, but the Obama administration is finally moving to end the National Security Agency’s overreach in collecting phone records in bulk, a program ostensibly to protect Americans against the threat of terrorism even as it affronts principles of a free society.

Last week President Barack Obama endorsed a plan that he asked intelligence officials and the Justice Department to develop. It must now go to Congress, where alternative bills have been proposed, including a bipartisan plan from the House Intelligence Committee.

With the White House calling for swift congressional action, Mr. Obama is poised to deliver on what he said he wanted in a January speech — to get the NSA out of the bulk collection of phone records while retaining the program’s capacity to probe possibly sinister contacts. The problem is that the NSA is scooping up records of innocent Americans in its vast electronic trawl and keeping them for five years.

To achieve a balance between national security and personal privacy won’t be easy. Not all the details have been reported, but the administration’s plan calls for the records to be kept by phone companies instead of the NSA and generally for no more than 18 months. If the security agency wanted to obtain records of callers linked to a suspect, it would need the approval of a judge from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court — which except in emergencies has been mandated since Mr. Obama spoke in January anyway.

Americans have reason to remain skeptical that both the NSA and administration will reform themselves when both have bought into excessive secrecy with scant regard for the people’s rights. To be sure, the offending program was a mine sowed into Section 215 of the Patriot Act by the Bush administration, but this administration exploited it. The public would be none the wiser if former NSA contractor Edward Snowden had not leaked thousands of documents.

Still, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., thinks the president’s plan “is a worthy effort.” And American Civil Liberties Union executive director Anthony Romero praised it as “a major step in the right direction and a victory for privacy.” But he also said that “this must be the beginning of surveillance reform, not the end.”

That’s our feeling, too. Phone records are not the only data collected by the government in a way that threatens liberty. Meanwhile, Mr. Obama has extended the program — which a federal judge has said is probably unconstitutional — for 90 days to give Congress time to move. Even action that comes soon will be belated.

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