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June 2012
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BAD RAP Americans may regret paring of NSA's tools

President Obama pretty much got a pass from the mainstream media when he contended during his re-election campaign that al-Qaida was on the run and the "war on terror" was winding down.

Perhaps that explains why many news outlets overlooked Director of National Intelligence James Clapper's statement this week to the Senate Intelligence Committee that he does not believe the threat from the terror network "is any less" than it was a decade ago.

Clapper went on to say that countering al-Qaida's desire to strike western interests is a growing challenge for a couple of reasons. One, he said, is that the group has become more globally dispersed and consists of what he terms "franchises" that operate in at least a dozen countries. The second reason is the disclosure by fugitive NSA contractor Edward Snowden of details of American intelligence-gathering activities, which Clapper says has caused "profound damage" to anti-terror efforts.

These remarks should be disturbing to the average American. But they were substantially drowned out during the hearing and in most news reports by the congressional sideshow over whether NSA surveillance activities in general cross the line.

While we are quick to defend civil liberties, we admit being somewhat puzzled by the sense of shock and outrage in some quarters over the disclosure that NSA computers sift through records of phone calls and other electronic communications and flag those that present obvious red flags.

Be honest. If you had a legitimate business interest in Yemen, such that you frequently called a phone number that happens to ring in a troubled part of that nation, would you really be that surprised (or even concerned) if an NSA computer flagged it, and a government spook decided to check to make sure your transactions are legitimate?

Then ask yourself this question. If you suddenly found yourself with an unfriendly neighbor with odd comings and goings who makes regular calls to Yemen or a Taliban-controlled region of Afghanistan and no one from the NSA or any other security agency knows or cares about it, would that disturb you?

It's a difficult path the security agencies walk, and because of the way terrorism is evolving in today's world, the line between appropriate vigilance and protection of individual privacy is not easily defined.

We think Americans who express outrage over Snowden's disclosures are in a somewhat obtuse position. If the nation were to suffer another 9/11-style attack on our home soil, security agencies would surely be excoriated for not detecting and preventing it. Yet many who would do the excoriating presently seem just as outraged at the possibility that if they make frequent calls or send frequent emails to shadowy places, it might provoke an intelligence agency to take a closer look.

You simply can't have it both ways. On balance, we think the nation's security agencies have gotten a bad rap from people seeking to make political hay on both sides of the aisle. While no one would argue that those agencies should have unbridled authority, handcuffing their capabilities in order to score political points is a perilous game to be playing in these times we live in.

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