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Opinion: Columnists

Stop the lies: Time for an intelligence community shakeup

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Opinion,Congress,David Freddoso,Columnists,National Security,NSA,Edward Snowden,James Clapper,Fourth Amendment

Until now, the bipartisan line on the National Security Agency's massive, indiscriminate collection of tens of millions of citizens' cell phone metadata was that it is both constitutionally permissible and vital in stopping dozens of terrorist attacks. Statements to that effect were made not only by the Obama administration, but also by Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers, R-Mich.

But as the Washington Post reported last week, this line of argument is being put out of business.

It's been a bad month for the NSA. A federal judge has expressed serious doubts about the constitutionality of this surveillance program. Even more importantly, Obama's hand-picked panel studying the issue of data collection, after reviewing the classified information surrounding it, rejects the NSA's assertion that this data collection has stopped any terrorist attack.

The panel has been described as an attempt to restore trust in the intelligence community. It has probably done the opposite.

For the sake of the common good, we have to trust a few people to keep secrets they cannot share with the many. We depend on them and their secret knowledge to stay a step ahead of those who would harm us. For our own good, we cannot all know what they know. And so they must be especially trustworthy, for they are in a unique position to lie, thanks to the secretive nature of what they do.

And in this rare moment, we've just caught them in two lies.

In March, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper testified unequivocally in a Senate hearing that the NSA does not "collect any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans." His statement was false, but we still wouldn't know that if not for NSA whistleblower (perhaps also traitor?) Edward Snowden.

Now the oft-repeated claim that this data collection (which we had been told wasn't done) has thwarted multiple terrorist attacks appears to be a fib as well.

America needs a housecleaning at its intelligence agencies — a new set of leaders who don't think their privileged clearances and access to non-public information give them a license to tell lies that almost no one can detect or reveal.

We could also use a restoration of the Fourth Amendment that puts an end to what the NSA was lying about. This doesn't just go back to the PATRIOT Act, the cited justification for this activity, but far beyond it. In the 1979 Smith v. Maryland decision, Justice Harry Blackmun held that Americans' privacy rights do not extend to the numbers we dial on our own personal phones. This issue cannot be fully addressed until that precedent is somehow reversed.

But for now, President Obama's next move carries political risks on either side. If he adopts the recommendations of his own panel and puts the brakes on NSA snooping, he could be blamed by certain opportunistic Republicans when the next terrorist attack occurs.

Fortunately for him, though, this is not the health care issue — he would not shoulder the blame alone.

If Obama wants to do the right thing, he has a large Republican buy-in on this issue. When it came to a vote this year, the House GOP was split almost down the middle. Included among those wanting to limit the NSA were not just libertarians like Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., and Rep. Justin Amash, R-Mich., but also former House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wis. -- the man who actually shepherded the PATRIOT Act through the House 12 years ago.

So politically, Obama can afford to do the right thing. It's just a question of whether he wants to.

DAVID FREDDOSO, a Washington Examiner columnist, is the former Editorial Page Editor for the Examiner and the New York Times-bestselling author of "Spin Masters: How the Media Ignored the Real News and Helped Re-elect Barack Obama." He has also written two other books, "The Case Against Barack Obama" (2008) and "Gangster Government" (2011).
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