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Editorial: Bipartisan Blessings; NSA Program Arouses Little Anger

Bipartisanship is far from dead on Capitol Hill, all appearances to the contrary notwithstanding. As it turns out, one major program has apparently been enthusiastically supported by Democratic and Republican leaders alike in Congress over the past few years: secret mass surveillance of the American people. We guess there’s nothing like contravening the Fourth Amendment to bring people together.

This is but one of many ironies pointed up by last week’s unauthorized disclosure of information about activities being conducted by the National Security Agency, one of which involves collecting information about all telephone calls placed or received in the United States. The other focuses on collecting Internet data from companies like Google and Facebook about the activities of foreign users.

Apparently, congressional leaders have repeatedly given their secret blessing to these programs, begun under President George W. Bush, continued by the Obama administration and approved by the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.

Since the programs were disclosed by Edward J. Snowden, a 29-year-old former CIA employee and more recently a contractor working at the NSA (an organization so secret that its initials are only half-jokingly referred to as standing for No Such Agency), members of the congressional leadership have given them a hearty endorsement in public.

“Those (in Congress) who have been fully briefed are comfortable with the capabilities used, the way they have been used and the due diligence exercised in making sure the agency responsible for carrying out and using the tools has been doing so within the confines of the law,” said Rep. Jim Langevin, D-R.I., a member of the House Intelligence Committee. On the Republican side, House Speaker John Boehner said, “When you look at these programs, there are clear safeguards. There’s no American who’s going to be snooped on in any way, unless they’re in contact with some terrorists somewhere around the world.”

This consensus is not universal, however. A few representatives and senators have been obliquely raising warning flags about such programs for a number of years. Of course — and here’s another irony — those who were troubled were unable to make their case public because the programs remained secret and they had been informed of them in classified briefings. Call it the Catch-22 conundrum.

President Obama, while deploring the disclosures, said that he welcomes a debate on the trade-offs involved in securing both security and liberty. Meanwhile, his administration is preparing to bring charges against Snowden, whose actions are the only reason that any such debate is even theoretically possible.

In Snowden’s case, the irony is more poignant. Although there is almost certainly more to his story than has been told so far, it seems clear that he was genuinely appalled at the systematic violations of privacy he encountered during the course of his employment. With normal channels of public complaint closed off by the secrecy of those programs, he apparently found himself in the position of having to do something that breached the secrecy of the nation’s counterterrorism capabilities in order, as he saw it, to save the country from something far worse — the extinction of constitutional liberties and individual privacy.

At least by coming forward as the source of the documents that served as the basis for stories in The Guardian and The Washington Post, Snowden made a point about transparency and taking responsibility for one’s actions that the government would do well to emulate.