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June 2012
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NSA 'two hop' limit a troubling idea

By SUSAN ESTRICH Creators Syndicate

Or do we really need three?

And why are we announcing to the world what calls we won't be monitoring?

Listening to our president, I am at a loss. He is giving a speech. That's what it sounds like. He is announcing that from now on, "We will only pursue phone calls that are two steps removed from a number associated with a terrorist organization instead of three."

Is that good?

How would I know? People keep measuring our collective opinion, when, truth be told, 99 percent of us have absolutely no basis for an opinion. Have three hops saved lives? Would we have known from just two hops?

I can't produce my own terrorist alert system. I've been doing my homework, and it mostly leaves me confused.

Not only do I not know what the answer is, but I also have no particular reason to assume anyone else does, even when they give me an answer. This is what I have learned from doing homework. The people who should don't necessarily know better than me; they definitely know more, but not necessarily better.

And that leaves me with this. It's the worst thing a civil libertarian could say, because it's exactly what I'm not supposed to do. I'm not supposed to say, well, yes, it intrudes on privacy, but it's OK because I trust the guy who happens to occupy the hot seat right now. No, I'm supposed to assume the guy (or gal) I never agree with is in that hot seat, and only if I'd trust my nemesis with the decision should government wield the power.

But that doesn't quite work here. Government has to have the power to protect us against terrorism. And they can't do so transparently. So the only thing a good civil libertarian can do is ask the hard questions about the person who would exercise that power, not try to erect rules that would make it abuse-proof. I want the president (and whoever replaces him in three years) to talk to us, to explain how they think about privacy and terror, how they approach the questions, not how they answer them, so I can decide whom to trust. That may be all we can do.

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