by Peter Morici
College Park, Md. (UPI) Jun 14, 2013
The revelation that the National Security Agency is tracking every phone call each American makes and broadly mining Internet data puts U.S. President Barack Obama at the center of yet another controversy. He and supporters in the Republican congressional leadership, not Edward Snowden, are making themselves villains.
Two sets of issues are central: Do NSA practices strike a reasonable balance between the threats posed by global terrorism and right to privacy? Are these the least intrusive necessary? Are safeguards against abuse adequate?
Will Edward Snowden be thrown in jail for revealing classified information under the Espionage Act or other statutes?
The president argues the nation needs to strike a balance between security and liberty. As with free speech -- you can't yell "fire" in a crowded movie theater -- the right to privacy isn't absolute.
However, if Americans are going to have a reasoned discussion, they must know what the government is up to, especially when it collects broad information that could be used to paint a sophisticated picture of each American's political leanings, sexual orientation and flavor of ice cream they prefer.
Obama can't have it both ways -- engage in an informed dialogue but not reveal the practices that need to be discussed. We can't know if these practices are the least intrusive necessary if the NSA doesn't list its feasible options and potential risks, explain why it chose metadata and enter into a public debate with the technology community alternative strategies.
Obama's second argument is that Americans can trust him and the government not to abuse metadata -- not to connect the dots about the details of ordinary folk's lives to pigeonhole and persecute them.
The "trust me" argument simply doesn't wash.
The Internal Revenue Service controversy is all about government employees exploiting private information. For example, illegally providing environmental activists with data about the political contributions of farmers and harassing folks for simply wishing to organize or be part of conservative civic groups.
Counting on the government to restrain itself is like leaving an unreformed alcoholic in a room full of booze overnight and expecting him to emerge sober.
Simply, the president's explanations and alibis are disingenuous and Snowden's actions likely did a public service.
Though we need to know more, we should recognize that he didn't sell or secretly give the information he received to terrorists, who likely already knew the NSA is amassing metadata. And importantly, if the NSA's actions are harmless to ordinary folks, as the president states, then Snowden didn't reveal anything harmful to national security either.
Missing in all this is a better understanding of the government safeguards against abuse of metadata. But Obama, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and others want to keep a clear picture of those processes from us, too. We should know with a suitable time lag, for example, what search warrants and investigations have been pursued on the basis of information gleaned from metadata.
Snowden is making possible the public discussion the president says we need and, with the support of responsible Republicans, Obama should step forward and frankly discuss with the American public what the NSA and other counter-terrorism agencies are doing and why.
As for Snowden, he doesn't appear very sophisticated but just young, idealistic and confused. After a brief period of celebrity, if left alone by the government, his employment opportunities will be curtailed by his actions and he will pay a price.
The economist in me says let the market decide and discipline whistle-blowers who reveal embarrassing but not harmful information.
(Peter Morici is an economist and professor at the Smith School of Business, University of Maryland, and widely published columnist. Follow him on Twitter: @pmorici1)
(United Press International's "Outside View" commentaries are written by outside contributors who specialize in a variety of important issues. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of United Press International. In the interests of creating an open forum, original submissions are invited.)
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