Intrusive security merits full attention

Every few days, we learn yet one more way in which government’s expanded surveillance powers intrude upon our privacy and civil liberties.

Recently, it was the revelation that spy agencies in the U.S. and Britain have been snagging personal data from the users of mobile phone apps. Before that came news that the NSA was tracking our social connections and delving into our contact lists. It appears the agency can do anything it wants when it comes to collecting information on pretty much anyone it wants.

We can take pride in this technological virtuosity, but it has propelled an expansion of government power unlike anything I’ve seen since I joined Congress 50 years ago. So we face the crucial question of what to do about them. How can we prevent abuse of the capabilities the NSA has been given?

The White House argues that there are elaborate “checks and balances.” That’s commendable but insufficient. There is a lack of evidence that Congress and the courts provided pushback on any of the intelligence community’s initiatives to expand its power — they have been reliable and relatively uncritical allies of the intelligence community.

I do not see how we get the balance between liberty and security right unless the courts and the full Congress get all the information they need and step up to their constitutional responsibilities.

At a minimum, then, Congress and the courts should commit to rigorous and sustained oversight and, in the case of Congress, legislative action to refine the laws governing federal surveillance. Government should not be entitled secretly to get information on anyone whenever it wants without more transparency, more information, more debate, more oversight, and additional constraints.

Getting the balance right between liberty and security is a daunting job, and now is the time for the Congress and the courts to exert leadership.

Written by Lee Hamilton, director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years. Email him at