Washington is beginning to debate the proper extent of government eavesdropping powers in the wake of Edward Snowden’s revelations about the NSA. It’s hardly as robust a discussion as it should be, but it’s a desperately needed start.
The colossal effort to monitor Americans’ communications constitutes an expansion of government power without precedent in the modern era. Yet no member of Congress saw an urgent need for public discussion. This is astounding. It took the actions of a leaker to spur any real airing of the matter on Capitol Hill.
Even now, it seems unlikely that Congress will make significant policy changes. All the nation’s key actors and institutions appear to approve of the surveillance programs — Congress, President Obama, the intelligence community, the courts, and the American people, who by their lack of widespread outrage have signaled that in this one case, at least, they believe the government can be trusted to keep us safe.
So Congress has missed its chance to lead a reasoned national debate over how extensive we want surveillance over Americans’ communications to be. It’s unlikely that genie can ever again be forced back into its bottle.
And that’s a problem. Once given power, the government rarely yields it. So even if you concede that the current administration and its intelligence leadership have been responsible stewards of the powers they’ve been given — and I don’t — that is no guarantee that the people who follow them, or the people who come after that, will be equally trustworthy.
This means that Congress has challenging work ahead. It needs to restore the proper balance between effective intelligence-gathering and intrusion into Americans’ privacy. And it needs to exercise greater oversight and insist on more transparency, more information, and more constraint on surveillance programs. There is no place for the timidity it has shown so far on these issues.
Americans should demand action to strike a better balance between privacy and security. In the past, the congressional overseers of the intelligence community have been captivated, if not captured, by the people they’re supposed to supervise. Same with the courts. And the administration has hardly been forthcoming. That means it’s up to the American people to insist that our leaders do their jobs. It’s no less true today than it was at our founding: the price of liberty is eternal vigilance.
Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.