OUR VIEW: Call for curb on NSA powers understandable

call for reining in agency's surveillance understandable

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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.

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  • Excerpt from: news.cnet.com...by Anne Broache January 8, 2008 1:16 PM PST

    Obama: No warrantless wiretaps if you elect me

    HANOVER, N.H.--Barack Obama may be leading the Democratic presidential pack in every major poll here, but that didn't dissuade the Illinois senator from a final early-morning rally with the Facebook generation.
    Clearly not content to leave their votes to the whims of online politicking, the Illinois senator stepped onto a stage fashioned in a Dartmouth College gymnasium, pulled an index card from his inside jacket pocket, and launched into a familiar set of talking points centered on what has become a familiar theme for his campaign: change and hope.

    "My job this morning is to be so persuasive...that a light will shine through that window, a beam of light will come down upon you, you will experience an epiphany, and you will suddenly realize that you must go to the polls and vote for Barack," he told a crowd of about 300 Ivy Leaguers--and, by the looks of it, a handful of locals who managed to gain access to what was supposed to be a students-only event.

    For one thing, under an Obama presidency, Americans will be able to leave behind the era of George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and "wiretaps without warrants," he said. (He was referring to the lingering legal fallout over reports that the National Security Agency scooped up Americans' phone and Internet activities without court orders, ostensibly to monitor terrorist plots, in the years after the September 11 attacks.)

    It's hardly a new stance for Obama, who has made similar statements in previous campaign speeches, but mention of the issue in a stump speech, alongside more frequently discussed topics like Iraq and education, may give some clue to his priorities.

    In our own Technology Voters' Guide, when asked whether he supports shielding telecommunications and Internet companies from lawsuits accusing them of illegal spying, Obama gave us a one-word response: "No."

    (Democrats Hillary Clinton and John Edwards and Republican Ron Paul, for their part, came to the same conclusion in our survey.)