How far is President Barack Obama willing to go in scaling back the surveillance powers of the National Security Agency?
The answer to that is likely to be forthcoming as the president continues to review the future of the NSA's sweeping access to telephone records as well as the makeup of the secret court that oversees its surveillance activities.
Revelations of the NSA's collection of telephone data prompted an outcry from civil libertarians. The news that the NSA program included spying on foreign leaders, including allies such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel, fueled additional calls for the administration to review the surveillance activities.
Whether Obama will substantially rein in the agency remains to be seen. Defenders of the NSA say that hindering its intelligence-gathering capacity could jeopardize action against terrorism. Obama has generally supported those arguments.
He could, however, back tighter restrictions on foreign leader spying and a presidential commission's recommendation to strip the NSA of its ability to store telephone records from millions of Americans while leaving intact most of the agency's powers.
The commission offered more than 40 recommendations, many of which were more sweeping than expected. He is not obligated to accept any of them.
The 9/11 tragedy strengthened the hand of the intelligence community at the expense of civil liberties. "Homeland security" became the rationale for tightening airline security, monitoring personal banking transactions and, as Americans learned in the past year, sanctioning government access to telephone records and other data. The revelation of the NSA's monitoring of telephone communications was a wake-up call on the erosion of civil liberties for many. The call for curbing the NSA's powers is understandable pushback.
Whatever Obama decides may not be the final chapter. Last month, U.S. District Judge Richard Leon of Washington ruled that the NSA data surveillance program was likely unconstitutional, calling it "Orwellian" in scale -- which it is -- but he didn't order a halt to it. Eleven days later, U.S. District Judge William Pauley III of Washington declared the NSA program to be legal, and dismissing a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union.
Both rulings are being appealed, and it ultimately may be up to the Supreme Court to decide whether security trumps privacy as far as telephone records and other data are concerned.