Jacob Sullum
Testifying before the House Judiciary Committee last July, Deputy Attorney General James Cole explained why the National Security Agency (NSA) needed to collect everyone's telephone records. "If you're looking for the needle in the haystack," he said, "you have to have the entire haystack to look through."

Judging from the changes that President Obama recommended last week, he has decided that looking for a needle in a haystack might not be the smartest way to prevent terrorist attacks. Obama's decision to eliminate the NSA database he once defended as essential to national security shows how important transparency is in protecting civil liberties, because he thought everything was fine as long as it was secret.

Under Obama's proposal, information about who calls whom, when and for how long will be retained by the phone companies, not the NSA. It will be preserved for the usual 18 months, as opposed to the five years of data held by the NSA. To obtain information about a particular number, the government will need a specific court order based on reasonable, articulable suspicion that the number is associated with a terrorist or a terrorist organization, rather than a blanket order covering all phone records.

"I am confident that this approach can provide our intelligence and law enforcement professionals the information they need to keep us safe, while addressing the legitimate privacy concerns that have been raised," Obama said last Thursday. Yet none of these reforms would have happened if former NSA contractor Edward Snowden had not revealed the existence of the phone record program, a public service that Obama views as a crime.

Even after news reports based on Snowden's leaks appeared last June, Obama described the NSA's snooping as "modest encroachments on privacy" that "help us prevent terrorist attacks." He claimed all three branches of government had approved the phone record database, because he thought it was OK, judges had secretly signed off on it and several members of Congress had been briefed.

In short, there was no need to be concerned. "We have established a process and a procedure that the American people should feel comfortable about," Obama said on June 7.

Polling data from the Pew Research Center suggest the effect of the president's assurances was the opposite of what he intended. By January, when Obama said he had been persuaded that the process and procedure governing the NSA's access to our personal information could use some improvement after all, 53 percent of Americans were against the phone record database.


Jacob Sullum

Jacob Sullum is a senior editor at Reason magazine and a contributing columnist on Townhall.com.
 
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