Rein in the NSA

Evidence mounts that the National Security Agency is out of control, abusing the authority granted by Congress in the paranoiac atmosphere that followed the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

The latest outrageous example is the disclosure that since 2002 the NSA has been eavesdropping on the cellphone communications of German Chancellor Angela Merkel. The White House and NSA report that President Obama did not know about the electronic spying on the leader of a close U.S. ally that also happens to have the most powerful economy in Europe.

If true, it is a frightening prospect that the president did not know, but former mid-level NSA contractor Eric Snowden did. Mr. Snowden's leaks about what went on inside the Puzzle Palace suggest an agency that is setting its own rules, fostering an environment in which the goal of intelligence gathering justifies nearly any means.

The revelation that the NSA monitored Chancellor Merkel and many other world leaders followed earlier disclosures that the agency employs "metadata" searches to troll through the emails and cellphone communications of all Americans, looking for patterns that suggest possible nefarious motives. This information remains stored for lengthy periods.

An internal NSA report, leaked by Mr. Snowden, showed the NSA had broken privacy rules or overstepped its authority thousands of times each year since Congress granted the agency broader powers in 2008.

Finally moved to action by the decade-long spying on the German leader, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, has vowed to conduct a total review of all U.S. spying programs. It is curious that Sen. Feinstein was not as agitated by the reports of NSA monitoring of Americans, but we welcome her plans to investigate nonetheless.

Clearly, the safeguards put in place in 1978 after past abuses - codified in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act - are not sufficient given the snooping powers granted under the post-9/11 Patriot Act.

There has always been an uneasy relationship between the ideals of freedom and rule of law and the base realities of the intelligence gathering necessary to protect those ideals. However, the understanding has always been that the spying had some direct connection to a security threat; instead the nation witnesses a NSA fishing expedition that is abusive in its mass approach.

It's time to rein in the NSA.

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