The following editorial appeared Monday in The San Jose Mercury News:
As a candidate for president in 2008, Barack Obama set a high bar for his administration, declaring that it would be "the most open and transparent in history."
But Obama for years has been making decisions behind closed doors about the privacy of American citizens' telephone records and other data available through technology. At his news conference Friday in San Jose, he said he would welcome a public debate on the balance between privacy and security - and so do we.
The precise details of methods security agencies use to identify threats have to remain classified to work and they do appear to have worked. Until Boston, there has been no major terrorist attack. But to intelligently debate that delicate balance, Americans need a better understanding of the extent to which government is accessing data about them. Concern spans the political spectrum: The ACLU and the tea party are of a mind on this.
The president defends his programs, denying that intelligence agencies are listening to phone calls or probing citizens' conduct through data mining.
He stresses that all three branches of government oversee these programs; Congress has been briefed all along and the courts must approve specifics.
But some dispute the claim that Congress was briefed, and two senators have warned that Americans were out of the loop.
"We believe most Americans would be stunned to learn the details of how these secret court opinions" have interpreted the anti-terrorism Patriot Act, Sens. Ron Wyden of Oregon and Mark Udall of Colorado wrote to Attorney General Eric Holder last year. There "now is a significant gap between what most Americans think the law allows and what the government secretly claims the law allows."
Civil rights organizations for years have decried the lack of accountability for U.S. intelligence agencies that historically have been prone to excess. It's reassuring to hear the president say that nobody's listening to actual phone calls without a warrant, but most Americans didn't realize until last week that agencies were accessing their phone records.
"If people can't trust not only the executive branch but also don't trust Congress and don't trust federal judges to make sure that we're abiding by the Constitution, due process and rule of law, then we're going to have some problems here," Obama said Friday.
Trust is at a premium these days. We actually had more faith in Obama than in Congress or the courts to do the right thing, based on his 2008 campaign. But Americans need to better understand what's happened since then to determine if the balance of safety and civil liberties has been skewed.