Privacy vs. Security Debate Defies Party Labels

The recent debate over the appropriate balance between personal privacy and national security cuts across the Democratic/Republican and liberal/conservative divide. Some Republicans are defending, while some Democrats are criticizing, the Obama administration's use of broad surveillance techniques to track terrorists.

"I'm glad the [National Security Agency] is trying to find out what the terrorists are up to overseas and in our country," Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a frequent critic of President Barack Obama, said Thursday morning on "Fox & Friends."

Graham was responding to the news that Verizon received a secret court order to turn over its customers phone records to the National Security Agency. The White House defended the operation, calling it a "critical tool" in its efforts to protect the nation against terrorist attacks.

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The debate was further widened when The Washington Post revealed Thursday evening that the NSA and FBI also have an operation in which they have been secretly collecting information from the servers of nine leading Internet companies.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) defended the White House. Feinstein is one of the most liberal senators on many issues, but as chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, often works with Republicans on counterterrorism issues. She spoke with reporters Thursday, alongside conservative Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), to lend support to the NSA program.

The NSA program, she explained, is the same program that began in the George W. Bush administration. It was revealed in 2009 by The New York Times.

"As you know, and I've pointed out many times, there have been approximately 100 plots and also arrests made since 2009 by the FBI," she added. "I do not know to what extent metadata was used or if it was used, but I do know this: That terrorists will come after us if they can and the only thing we have to deter this is good intelligence. To understand that a plot is being hatched and to get there before they get to us."

Leading the opposite side of the debate in the U.S. Senate are a conservative Republican, Rand Paul (Ky.), and a liberal Democrat, Ron Wyden (Ore.).

"The program Senators Feinstein and Chambliss publicly referred to today is one that I have been concerned about for years," Wyden said in a Thursday statement. "I am barred by Senate rules from commenting on some of the details at this time. However, I believe that when law-abiding Americans call their friends, who they call, when they call, and where they call from is private information. Collecting this data about every single phone call that every American makes every day would be a massive invasion of Americans' privacy."

"There is always a balance between security and liberty and the American tradition has long been to err on the side of liberty," Paul wrote in a Friday op-ed for The Guardian. " … If the seizure and surveillance of Americans' phone records – across the board and with little to no discrimination – is now considered a legitimate security precaution, there is literally no protection of any kind guaranteed anymore to American citizens. In their actions, more outrageous and numerous by the day, this administration continues to treat the US Constitution as a dead letter."

Paul also introduced Thursday a bill that would prevent the broad collection of data by not allowing the seizure of private records for any individual U.S. citizen without probable cause.

Meanwhile, the editorial pages of two of America's major newspapers found the conservatives at the Wall Street Journal defending the program and the liberals at The New York Times criticizing it.

The Wall Street Journal editors warned of a "potential political overreaction" to the news and argued that "surveillance is more critical than ever to stopping terror attacks."

"The administration has now lost all credibility on this issue," The New York Times editors wrote. (The original post did not include "on this issue.") "Mr. Obama is proving the truism that the executive branch will use any power it is given and very likely abuse it. That is one reason we have long argued that the Patriot Act ... was reckless in its assignment of unnecessary and overbroad surveillance powers."

The editors of The Washington Post took a more moderate position, arguing that the program may be necessary for national security but the administration should have done more to explain and defend it.

"In the days after the Boston bombings, many asked why the government didn't connect the dots on the Tsarnaev brothers. Now, many are asking why the government wants so much information about so many Americans. The legitimate values of liberty and safety often compete. But for the public to be able to make a reasonable assessment of whether these programs are worth the security benefits, it needs more explanation," they wrote.

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