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Editorials, from Right and Left, Hit Latest NSA Shocker
Greg Mitchell
May 11, 2006

NEW YORK Leading newspapers reacted swiftly to USA Today's Thursday bombshell confirming the long-rumored National Security Agency "data mining" operation drawing on phone records of tens of millions of Americans. Web sites covered the reactions of the day in Washington, and now editorials are appearing.

The New York Times' James Risen and Eric Lichtblau first disclosed the program, but in less specific terms, last December. Thursday on its Web site, The Washington Post confirmed it, using these words: "The Bush administration has secretly been collecting the domestic telephone records of millions of American households and businesses, assembling gargantuan databases and attempting to sift them for clues about terrorist threats, according to sources with knowledge of the program."

A Post editorial asserted that data mining can be legitimate but "a giant government database detailing which phone numbers called which other phone numbers ... is a massive intrusion on personal privacy."

USA Today on Friday ran a lengthy editorial slamming the program -- while observing that the White House had declined the opportunity to provide an opposing view.

The newspaper declared, "Creating a huge, secret database of Americans' phone records does far more than threaten terrorists. It is a deeply troubling act that undermines U.S. freedoms and threatens us all."

From the right, the Chicago Tribune editorial page on Friday opined, "This sounds like a vast and unchecked intrusion on privacy. President Bush's assurance Thursday that the privacy of Americans was being 'fiercely protected' was not at all convincing ... Based on the newspaper's reporting, this effort appears to go far beyond any surveillance effort that would be targeted at terrorist operations.

"At first blush this program carries troubling echoes of Total Information Awareness, a proposed Defense Department 'data-mining' expedition into a mass of personal information on individuals' driver's licenses, passports, credit card purchases, car rentals, medical prescriptions, banking transactions and more. That was curbed by Congress after a public outcry. It seems the people who wanted to bring you TIA didn't get the message."

The Tribune noted that it had backed NSA surveillance "if it included some modest judicial oversight. But this vast mining of domestic phone records ... this is something else. ...

"Why would the government seek and store records of every telephone call to your doctor, your lawyer, your next door neighbor? Tell us."

The Los Angeles Times echoed this, noting that "by now no one in (or out of) Congress should have any faith in the administration's assurances about either its actions or its intentions under this program. As another president once observed: Trust, but verify. Congress needs to fill in the blanks. "

The conservative Boston Herald observed, "Since 9/11 the American public has been willing to rely on the assurances of government leaders that they are preserving our privacy while fighting terrorism. Unfortunately, and perhaps understandably, many Americans no longer believe them."

The Detroit Free Press expressed horror, but in an amusing fashion, titling its editorial "Liberty and Scrutiny for All" and leading off with: "Might as well just assume that every move you make, every step you take, every call you place, they'll be watching you. So conduct yourself accordingly."

The New York Times, meanwhile, declared on Friday that "there is more reason than ever to be worried -- and angry -- about how wide the government's web has been reaching. ...

"The government has stressed that it is not listening in on phone calls, only analyzing the data to look for calling patterns. But if all the details of the program are confirmed, the invasion of privacy is substantial. By cross-referencing phone numbers with databases that link numbers to names and addresses, the government could compile dossiers of what people and organizations each American is in contact with. ...

"What we have here is a clandestine surveillance program of enormous size, which is being operated by members of the administration who are subject to no limits or scrutiny beyond what they deem to impose on one another. If the White House had gotten its way, the program would have run secretly until the war on terror ended -- that is, forever.

"Congress must stop pretending that it has no serious responsibilities for monitoring the situation. The Senate should call back Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and ask him -- this time, under oath -- about the scope of the program. This time, lawmakers should not roll over when Mr. Gonzales declines to provide answers. The confirmation hearings of Michael Hayden, President Bush's nominee for Central Intelligence Agency director, are also a natural forum for a serious, thorough and pointed review of exactly what has been going on.

"Most of all, Congress should pass legislation that removes any doubt that this kind of warrantless spying on ordinary Americans is illegal. If the administration finds the current procedures for getting court approval of wiretaps too restrictive, this would be the time to make any needed adjustments."

The USA Today editorial observed, "The fact that the government is trying to track (but not wiretap) every call you make and every call you receive -- at home or on your cellphone is, to say the least, disturbing.

"It means that your phone company (if you are a customer of AT&T, BellSouth or Verizon) tossed your privacy to the wind and collaborated with this extraordinary intrusion, and that it did so secretly and without following any court order.

"That is, unless you're lucky enough to be served by Qwest, the one major phone company that had the integrity to resist government pressure.

"It means that unless public opposition changes the government's course, this database will be compiled, updated and expanded into the indeterminate future, through countless administrations with who-knows-what interests and motives.

"Only the most naive and unsuspicious soul could trust that it will remain safe, secured and for the eyes only of those hunting terrorists."

It also found "questionable" arguments that the spy program is legal.

The New York Post, on the other hand, found the revelations all the more reason to confirm Gen. Michael Hayden -- who once oversaw the NSA spy efforts--as new CIA director.

"It needs someone like Hayden - who understands the need to maximize efforts actually to defeat the terrorists - to whip the CIA into shape once and for all," the Post declared.

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