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Discretion Required In Debate Over Government Surveillance

by on June 13, 2013 6:50 AM

With the disclosure of the government’s PRISM program and the alleged monitoring of internet and phone traffic we have reached another pivotal point in our country’s fight against terrorism. We must now look at how we are defending ourselves and decide if we are okay with perceived infringement of our rights and privacy.

The naming of the person who leaked details of this program to the media has stirred a debate on what to make of him. Is a hero? Is he a traitor? Is this a great public service or is this treasonous? Ultimately that decision will be made by the justice system and the courts.

However, the program’s exposure has sparked a larger debate. The shape of that debate and how public it becomes is the biggest question ahead. The discussion of our security methods is an ongoing evolving debate.

Despite being close to terrorism’s front lines Israel has done a commendable job of limiting attacks. Geographically they’re a smaller nation. They’ve built walls and checkpoints and willingly profile possible suspects based on religion or appearance. They’ve chosen to sacrifice some freedoms to gain more security.

We live in a vast nation with long borders and many ways to get inside our borders. Our government cannot be everywhere all the time so it has to resort to other methods. Sometimes those methods may collide with our rights.

Everyone is for liberty. Americans don't want someone watching over their shoulders to see who they call or what they search for on the internet. We abhor the type of monitoring that we suspect only goes on in places like China, North Korea or Iran.

That being said, no one is exactly sure what our government is and is not doing. Ostensibly, it is to monitor patterns and traffic and chatter to uncover a threat before it becomes the reality of a horrible terrorist attack.

A word of caution here; this story may be a long way from being accurate so I do not wish to jump to conclusions based on media reports alone. If the people of this community have learned anything in the modern age it should be that the initial and often many months of subsequent media reports can get things wrong — repeatedly.

There is an important point to be made here; we don’t know if anything currently being done secretly is actually illegal. It may prove to be, it may not.

The fact is some program to track activity and search for threatening patterns will continue. The question that must be answered is not; should it continue? The question is; how should it continue? That is the nature of the debate we face.

In Shakespeare’s play Henry IV the character Falstaff states “The better part of valor is discretion; in the which better part I have saved my life.”

This debate requires discretion rather than grandstanding; it will have to err on the side of more secrecy rather than less secrecy. This is a time when we must trust in our government officials to make the right call. I know the idea of trusting the government is not in vogue right now but the alternative is to throw this thing open and allow friends and enemies alike to dissect what we’re doing.

The members of the executive branch, the legislative branch and the judicial branch should quietly and discreetly review the procedures and processes in place to insure that they are both legal and effective. The NSA should provide any oversight group with concrete examples of past effectiveness and future necessity.

A series of public hearings in front of live television is not the best way to talk about a program designed to catch threats before they turn into attacks. Airing the hows and whys of a covert security program is counterproductive. If enemies know what we look for, where we look for them and how we catch them, they can evade detection.

The human mind adapts and adapts quickly. After the attacks of 9/11 we made the planes harder targets. We eliminated knives and box cutters from being allowed on planes. Then we saw an attempted shoe bombing. When we started taking off our shoes at security gates, we got underwear bombers.

Up until now the public has not been completely aware of the NSA program. Now that we are aware, so are those plotting attack. The government should move to assess and evaluate this program as privately as possible in a public society.

In a world that loves good posturing and manufactured outrage for the cameras, it is time for the better part of valor. We may find that in discretion we’ll keep an effective program’s game plan hidden from people plotting ways around it. In doing so we may prevent further harm to innocent people.

It is a tough tightrope to walk in a nation that demands freedom, privacy and security. But the best way to walk this tightrope is to focus on a solution that doesn't involve making a lot of noise.



State College native and Penn State graduate Jay Paterno is a father, husband and political volunteer. He’s a frequent guest lecturer on campus and at Penn State events and was the longtime quarterbacks coach for the Nittany Lions. His column appears every other Thursday. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/JayPaterno
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