In Our View: It's Time to Rein in NSA

Spy agency's actions both domestic and foreign hurt government at home, abroad

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The latest revelations confirm what we already suspected: The National Security Agency is insatiable when it comes to collecting data, both legally and illegally, foreign and domestic.

The NSA long ago was revealed to have collected records of phone calls made by U.S. citizens. That was — and is — legal, although it caused much consternation in the debate over the balance between national security and personal privacy. Now, more recent revelations that the agency collects information regarding personal emails and instant messages, along with information from the phones of foreign leaders, has led to even more questions.

And as the perception of the NSA as an out-of-control entity that must be reined in continues to grow, it is time for Congress to get involved.

Originally brought to light when NSA contractor Edward Snowden leaked secrets as he fled to Russia, the organization's pervasive spying has turned into a black eye for the Obama administration and the U.S. government in general. Not only has it further diminished Americans' trust in their leaders, it has diminished the nation's standing in the eyes of the world.

As Obama was running for president in 2008, he visited Germany and spoke of "allies who will listen to each other, who will learn from each other, who will, above all, trust each other." Little did anybody realize he meant they would literally listen to each other. But recent reports based off documents leaked by Snowden suggest that the NSA had monitored German Chancellor Angela Merkel's official cellphone as well as communications by French leaders.

"The Americans are and remain our best friends, but this is absolutely not right," German Defense Minister Thomas de Maiziere said. "We can't simply return to business as usual." White House spokesman Jay Carney said Obama assured Merkel that the United States "is not monitoring and will not monitor her communications," notably avoiding any mention of past practices.

The possible monitoring of overseas allies is problematic for the administration, but it is merely a symptom of what apparently has become a disease that is infecting national security efforts. The terrorist attacks of 9/11 forever altered the tenuous relationship between security and privacy, something that has been a hallmark of the United States since its founding. The nation and her citizens have been trying to recalibrate those scales for the past 12 years, seeking a balance between preventing terrorism and individual freedom.

There is little the average citizen can do to prevent the culling of their personal activities. As Eyder Peralta of NPR reported, "In plain English, this means that many of the tools … that people worldwide have come to believe protect them from snooping by criminals and governments are essentially worthless when it comes to the NSA."

That's where Congress must step in. While the NSA is watching you and your neighbor and potential terrorists throughout the United States, the question becomes who is watching the NSA? Apparently nobody. Although the NSA can legally obtain information about phone calls, The Washington Post has reported that the agency is not authorized by either Congress or the court created by the Foreign Intelligence Survey Act to track emails.

Investigations and hearings should be held. Budgets should be examined. Laws should be upheld through criminal prosecutions, and if those laws are not strong enough they should be rewritten. The apparent actions of the NSA — both foreign and domestic — are anathema to American tradition, and that calls for action on behalf of the people.