In times of war and national emergency, it's sometimes necessary to sacrifice civil liberties to secure vital gains in public safety. In those cases, we may have to accept a loss of privacy or freedom rather than invite mass slaughter of Americans.
The National Security Agency's domestic phone records collection is not one of those.
Never have so many Americans been brought under surveillance for such a meager payoff, actual or potential. Creating risks to privacy to save lives is one thing. Creating them to accomplish little or nothing is another.
That's why the controversy over President Barack Obama's proposed revision of this program, known as the Section 215 program, is largely political theater. The important question is not how to adjust it to "balance" security and privacy. It's whether the government should be doing this at all.
The administration has strained to give the impression that the program is essential to saving lives. NSA Director Keith Alexander said its surveillance programs have helped "prevent over 50 potential terrorist events."
That is true, just as it's true that, between us, Tom Brady and I have three Super Bowl rings. The NSA has unearthed a lot of valuable information that has foiled numerous attacks -- just not through this program.
What is overlooked in the debate is that the administration has more or less admitted this point. U.S. District Judge Richard Leon, in a ruling last month against the NSA, noted that "the government does not cite a single instance in which analysis of the NSA's bulk metadata collection actually stopped an imminent attack, or otherwise aided the government in achieving any objective that was time-sensitive in nature." In seven years, (SET ITAL) not a single instance. (END ITAL)
When Obama appointed a task force to assess these surveillance efforts, the members questioned NSA officials on that very matter. They learned, as they said in their report, that "there has been no instance in which NSA could say with confidence that the outcome would have been different without the section 215 telephony meta-data program."
Contrast this assessment with the task force's view of another mass surveillance program -- which lets the NSA obtain not just records of calls, but the actual content of communications of foreigners outside of the U.S. This program, said the panel, "has clearly served an important function in helping the United States to uncover and prevent terrorist attacks both in the United States and around the world."