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Sherman Says: The National Security Agency is operating without any checks or balances

SPRINGVILLE — The revelation that the National Security Agency has been monitoring American citizens’ activities and personal information has reopened concerns for privacy in our free society.

According to The Associated Press, the NSA has been collecting telephone records from hundreds of millions of Americans, each day, creating a database, through which it can learn if terror suspects have been in contact with people in the United States.

It was also revealed that an Internet scouring program, PRISM, allows the NSA and FBI to tap directly into nine U.S. Internet companies’ records, to gather information about Web usage, including audio, video, photographs, emails and search engine traffic. This strategy is designed to detect suspicious behavior that begins overseas.

A 29-year-old high school dropout, who worked for a large consulting firm, claimed responsibility for disclosing the programs to a pair of newspapers, The Guardian and The Washington Post.

“The American people must be given the opportunity to evaluate the facts about this program and its broad scope, for themselves, so that this debate can begin in earnest,” said senators Mark Udall and Ron Wyden, members of the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.

I have written in support of the Patriot Act in the past, as well as covert intelligence-gathering activities of the New York City Police Department. New measures are required, to protect the homeland from terrorists, both foreign and domestic. Some of these measures are geared toward specific groups or those with tangible links to potential terrorists. Surveillance is done within a precise framework.

What the NSA is said to be doing amounts to fishing with a much larger net. The PRISM program affects anyone who makes use of Internet firms based in America, which is a staggering majority of the population. It’s like drawing up a list of people who enjoy a cup of coffee before 9 a.m., every day. It’s endless.

The hostile reaction was too late to make any real difference, in the debate.

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said it was “gut-wrenching to see this happen, because of the huge, grave damage it does, to our intelligence capabilities. He asked the justice department to investigate.

“I think it’s an opportunity now to have a discussion about the limits of surveillance, how we create transparency, and above all, how we protect Americans’ privacy,” Udall said.

Which leaves me asking, who’s minding the store? While many administration officials and members of Congress were mounting a charge to have the person who leaked the information prosecuted, are we overlooking the bigger picture?

The alleged breach of confidentiality is shameful, but the NSA’s free-wheeling espionage mission has burrowed into the affairs of other countries, at a time when the United States still has to defend its honor, on almost a daily basis.

“The exposure of this data grab on all foreign traffic is likely to inflame U.S. versus Europe data privacy wars,” said Joel Reidenberg, a law professor at Fordham University Law School.

I was not aware that we were at war with Europe, when it came to data privacy. We have plenty of those issues, right here on our own turf.

The disclosures about the NSA demonstrate that we have an uncontrolled intelligence campaign on our hands, which has slipped through the fingers of all three branches of government. As with most policies, the buck must stop in the Oval Office.

Like the IRS scandal involving oversight given to conservative groups, the NSA’s activities demand an explanation. As the people whose activities are being mined for safekeeping, we have a right to know just how far the government has been allowed to proceed.

We want to be kept safe, but the majority of Americans must remain free from uncontrolled invasions of our privacy.

David Sherman is the managing editor of Bee Group Newspapers and a columnist for the Weekly Independent Newspapers of Western New York, a group of community newspapers with a combined circulation of 286,500 readers. Opinions expressed here are those of the author. He can be reached at
dsherman@beenews.com.

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