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Ron Miller: After Snowden, what kind of country does America want to be?

Ron Miller | Jan. 15, 2014
The really important question right now isn't what to do about Edward Snowden; it's how much surveillance is tolerable in a free society.

The Obama administration is reportedly working on some reforms, based on the recommendations of an independent review panel. Though it's unclear how much weight the administration is giving those recommendations, the review is a chance to determine just how much spying on ordinary citizens we are going to allow in our country.

I think bad actors can be stopped without compromising our principles. We've done it many times. In the battle against organized crime, the FBI had to get court orders for wiretaps as it gathered evidence. In many cases it went undercover. Law enforcement got the job done while honoring the rights granted in the Constitution.

Yes, terrorists operate in the shadows, but even they have to come into the light to undertake certain activities. They need to finance their operations. They need training. They need places to live. We want law enforcement to be able to observe them whenever they step into the light. That might mean listening to their calls and monitoring their email. But those things can be done without catching all of the citizenry up in the surveillance net — or even a significant portion of the citizenry. Law enforcement has to be listening to the right people, but listening to everyone just makes it harder to catch the really critical information.

Just last week in The Wall Street Journal, a former NSA employee suggested that the agency is so awash in data, it can't possibly understand what it has — which implies that its data collection policies could actually be undermining its mission.

This also indicates that sweeping up information doesn't make us safer. It just erodes our democratic principles in the name of making us safer.

Certainly there are bad people in the world who want to do harm to the U.S. and its allies. That's a given. 9/11 is a historical fact. But wouldn't the agencies charged with protecting our safety be better off targeting their surveillance resources much more intelligently, rather than simply sucking in as much information as they can and telling us that makes us safer?

This is the conversation we need to be having now. The time to debate the merits of Edward Snowden's activities has passed. It's yesterday's news. Today we need to take action based on what we now know and decide just what kind of country we want to be.

 

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