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Editorial: NSA argument

The core of the argument over the National Security Agency breaks down to privacy versus security.

At least that’s how the argument is being framed in the halls of Congress and for now, at least, security is winning.

This is why an effort to curtail the broad-based collection of telephone and Internet records was narrowly defeated in the House not too long ago. That effort to tighten the leash on the NSA, not surprisingly, was scuttled by the White House and congressional leadership who argued that what the NSA is doing is critical to efforts to keep anything close to the 9/11 attacks from happening again.

Their argument was summarized by Mac Thornberry, a Republican from Texas who is vice chairman of the House Armed Services Committee and leads the Subcommittee on Intelligence, Emerging Threats and Capabilities. In voting against the restraints, Thornberry defended his vote by saying, “I know that these programs have become central in our ability to stop terrorist attacks ... I think there is a lot of misunderstanding and misconceptions. Some people are demagoguing the issue, and contributing to that misunderstanding.”

But we think Americans would feel more secure about what the NSA is doing if there were more visible safeguards in place.

The NSA says that the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court is involved in the process. But just how formal or involved a relationship this is between the two is a little hazy. Making it a tighter relationship with better defined checks and balances would be one step to ease concerns.

Adding another independent oversight agency to protect the interests and privacy of Americans would also help.

Another step involves warrants. The Guardian newspaper, the one at the center of the Edward Snowden scandal, reported that NSA personnel don’t need a warrant to delve into personal emails, online chats and what someone does while scanning the Web. While the NSA and its supporters continue to say that the agency is not going through the average American’s information, requiring warrants would at least seem to offer a line of defense when it comes to privacy.

In the end this doesn’t have to be privacy versus security. Rather it can be a matter of balance.

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