Our View: NSA and privacy: The practical — defenders on ‘the wall’

Posted: August 17, 2013

Benjamin Franklin, so it’s been frequently noted, famously said, “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.”

More often than not, though, the context of this comment is overlooked. It was uttered in 1755 — not 1775 — in a colonial Pennsylvania dispute over border security. But never mind; the remark is conveniently resurrected when talk rises high about the precarious balance between freedom and security, a balance that emphasis on the latter forever threatens to upset.

We hear the Franklin muse invoked much these days as folks debate the merits and legality of the NSA surveillance program. In a such a discussion, Mr. Franklin’s sentiments can be, and often are, ill used.

Most, if not all, Americans grasp the necessity of — for want of a better description — keeping tabs on the bad guys abroad and at home. They not only recognize that defending this nation — and not, for example, providing health care — is the foremost priority and function of the federal government, but also welcome the security of knowing that somewhere on “that wall,” as the Nathan Jessup character in “A Few Good Men” might say, there are good folks performing that very task. Some carry guns; others monitor computer screens and mine metadata. We sleep better knowing they all are hard at work.

Hence, in and of itself, the NSA’s surveillance program, says former Inspector General Gerald Walpin in an article for conservative National Review Online, is as logical as it is legal — and hardly “an unconstitutional invasion of our rights.”

“Our intelligence people know phone numbers or area codes used by terrorists in various world locations,” Mr. Walpin writes. “Wouldn’t you want our intelligence services to know who in the United States called those numbers and area codes and to examine the information to determine whether those calls were innocent or not?”

Without a doubt. Nonetheless, we must also ask: How much of this is too much?