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October 4, 2013 10:02 am

Congress Should Not Overreact to NSA Controversy

avatar by John Bolton

Edward Snowden. Photo: Wikipedia.

After former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden leaked information about the NSA’s extensive gathering of phone and Internet data, many Americans were outraged at the perceived overstep and demanded change. Others have defended the surveillance as necessary for American security. The leaks have prompted President Obama and Congress to consider reforms to the NSA and data-gathering process.

In this One Minute Debate, three writers give their take on NSA surveillance and reforms. On one side, John Bolton, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and former US ambassador to the United Nations, warns that NSA capabilities and needed secrecy should not be curtailed. On the other hand, Elizabeth Goitein, codirector of the Liberty and National Security program at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law, argues that greater transparency is needed and the law authorizing NSA surveillance must be changed. Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D) of Connecticut takes a third view: Reform the FISA court that authorizes NSA surveillance.

For years, America’s enemies have yearned to cripple its foreign electronic intelligence-gathering capabilities. Now, the ongoing furor over the National Security Agency (NSA) gives them the chance. Outright falsehoods, distortions, and hysteria have unfortunately been fueled by actual abuses and mistakes.

We face a general debate about whether vital electronic-surveillance programs should be substantially curtailed. We must prevent hype and anger over specific abuses from harming the NSA’s actual capabilities and the secrecy needed to protect them.

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Intelligence exists not for its own sake but to support executive decisionmaking. Accordingly, President Obama is principally responsible for explaining and advocating clandestine activities. This, he appallingly failed to do. Mr. Obama must act like a president, leading the defense of our embattled capabilities.

The inevitable congressional proceedings must not repeat the irreparable damage that the 1970s-era congressional investigative committees caused the CIA. Deficiencies there were, but our enemies were the principal beneficiaries of the committees’ destructive investigations.

Most important, whatever fixes are made today must not deny America the tools to protect itself from terrorists, their state sponsors, and foreign adversaries, many of which are developing massive cyberwarfare programs. Moreover, the largely preventable or imaginary invasions of privacy pale before security breakdowns that have allowed serious intelligence leaks.

The NSA’s opponents should be put on notice: If you materially restrict surveillance capabilities, you risk having American blood on your hands.

Yes, stop the abuses, increase constitutional oversight, tighten NSA security, and demand accountability. But do not render America deaf and blind.

John Bolton, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, served as US ambassador to the United Nations in 2005-06.

This article was originally published by the Christian Science Monitor.

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