Time for answers
Lee, Chaffetz have a role to play
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Even a blind chicken can find a kernel of corn now and then. And the many members of Congress who are predisposed to loudly oppose everything that the Obama administration has done, is doing or might do, have been handed a bumper crop, in the form of a deluge of information about the National Security Agency's vast sweep of private telephone and Internet histories.

Reacting to this news in the right way would both protect the American people from the excesses of their own government and help politicians such as Utah's Rep. Jason Chaffetz and Sen. Mike Lee turn their image from that of two predictable scolds into a pair of true reformers.

Don't blow it, gentlemen. For all our sakes.

First came reports that the NSA is routinely compiling full records of every phone call made by any customers of Verizon and, presumably, other major phone carriers as well. Then we learned that there is a program called PRISM that is sweeping up personal information from such major Internet services as Facebook, Google, Microsoft and Apple.

President Obama and a few key members of Congress, Republican and Democrat, have leapt to defend these programs, arguing that they are necessary to detect and deter acts of terrorism. But the same argument — we are doing this for your own good — has been used to justify everything from Japanese-American internment camps to Abu Ghraib. No free people should sit still for such a dismissal of their legitimate concerns.

Obama, a former constitutional law professor who campaigned against the black ops excesses of the Bush years, said himself Friday that he "came in with a healthy skepticism about these programs." The fact that the president now clings to them is evidence that he, like many other officials of both parties, do not feel political or personal pressure to respect the Fourth Amendment nearly as much as they feel obligated to use every tool in the kit — no matter how outrageous — to prevent future acts of terror.

Lee, to his credit, has been consistent in his criticism of what he reasonably sees as the overreach of federal surveillance efforts. He and Chaffetz are in a position to seek answers about what data our government is gathering, what it is doing with it and whether any of it meets the constitutional requirements of seeking warrants for specific things or people based on probable cause.

Their job, and the job of all their congressional colleagues, is to see to it that secret electronic dragnets are clearly defined, and prohibited, under the law. Not just for Democratic presidents, but for all of them.