Are We Safe With Limiting the NSA?

Wednesday, 22 Jan 2014 03:26 PM

By Susan Estrich

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Are two hops enough? Or do we really need three?
And why are we announcing to the world what calls we won't be monitoring?
Listening to our president, I am at a loss. He is giving a speech. That's what it sounds like. He is announcing that from now on, "We will only pursue phone calls that are two steps removed from a number associated with a terrorist organization instead of three."
Is that good?
Later, the pundits will explain that this would dramatically limit the scope of the information we collect. Score one for the liberals who otherwise don't think the president has gone far enough. They are otherwise unhappy, seemingly even unhappier than those who worry that he may be going too far.
Is two "hops" enough?
How would I know? People keep measuring our collective opinion, when, truth be told, 99 percent of us have absolutely no basis for an opinion. Chocolate or vanilla? Have three hops saved lives? Would we have known from just two hops?
And really, so what if you know that? That's the sneaky thing about terrorism. It's all about surprising us, catching us off guard, so you have to be on guard that much more. Unpredictable. Did we really just announce that if you add one more middle person, we won't be pursuing you?
It would be reassuring to sit back, the way people used to do when we went to doctors, and leave it all in their hands. What do I know, we would say, entrusting ourselves sometimes to geniuses and sometimes to fools, sometimes to people who really do know better and sometimes less so. How to be sure? Produce your own healthcare, we now say to each other. Bring an advocate. Do your homework.
I can't produce my own terrorist alert system. I've been doing my homework, and it mostly leaves me confused.
Not only do I not know what the answer is, but I also have no particular reason to assume anyone else does, even when they give me an answer. This is what I have learned from doing homework. The people who should don't necessarily know better than me; they definitely know more, but not necessarily better.
Did we move from three to two because we are absolutely certain that it will not endanger us, or was someone looking for at least one bullet point for the speech that would indicate that the administration is trimming the NSA's sails? Two instead of three. It has a ring to it.
And I can't blame the president for not telling me more, telling me how they decided that two steps would be enough, or what numbers, exactly, we are talking about. My goodness, I'm nervous that he told me the bottom line, much less the details supporting it.
And that leaves me with this. It's the worst thing a civil libertarian could say, because it's exactly what I'm not supposed to do. I'm not supposed to say, well, yes, it intrudes on privacy, but it's OK because I trust the guy who happens to occupy the hot seat right now. No, I'm supposed to assume the guy (or gal) I never agree with is in that hot seat, and only if I'd trust my nemesis with the decision should government wield the power.
But that doesn't quite work here. Government has to have the power to protect us against terrorism. And they can't do so transparently. So the only thing a good civil libertarian can do is ask the hard questions about the person who would exercise that power, not try to erect rules that would make it abuse-proof.
I want the president (and whoever replaces him in three years) to talk to us, to explain how they think about privacy and terror, how they approach the questions, not how they answer them, so I can decide whom to trust. That may be all we can do.
Susan Estrich is a best-selling author whose writings have appeared in newspapers such as The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and Washington Post. Read more reports from Susan Estrich — Click Here Now.

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