Steve Chapman

It accused the NSA of lying to it about the program, violating the court's guidelines, asking for permission to do things that were clearly illegal, doing "systematic overcollection" and using the Fourth Amendment ban on unreasonable searches and seizures for target practice.

The president should have been aware of all this, but he couldn't be troubled to take corrective action until the phone records collection program became a public embarrassment. Even then, his first instinct was to defend the program and condemn Snowden, which was pretty much what would have happened if John McCain or Mitt Romney were president.

One reason the program put an unflattering light on Obama is that it went far beyond what Congress thought it approved and what the public knew. Another is that it didn't actually do much good.

The top intelligence officials portray their mass vacuuming of phone records as a vital safeguard against terrorism. But independent evaluators have not been convinced they are telling the truth.

Last year U.S. District Judge Richard Leon noted, "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."

The president's Review Group on Intelligence and Communication Technologies said, "There has been no instance in which NSA could say with confidence that the outcome would have been different without the section 215 telephony metadata program." The independent federal Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board also looked and came up empty.

Now the president says he wants to let the NSA get phone records only for specific numbers and only if the FISA court agrees. That would finally put a significant constraint on this type of domestic snooping.

It would also help to restore force to one of the fundamental premises of American government: Don't trust bad people with unchecked power, and don't trust good ones.

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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