Government snooping programs reignite privacy vs. security debate

AJC writer Scott Trubey contributed to this report.

A significant divide erupted after disclosures of government surveillance of private citizens, reigniting the debate over the elusive balance between national security threats and the right to personal privacy.

A leading figure in the national dialogue is U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss, who emerged as one of the most outspoken defenders of the government’s secretive, seven-year effort to capture records of telephone calls within the U.S.

Chambliss, the top Republican in the Senate Intelligence Committee, suggested that the court order requiring Verizon Communications to give the National Security Agency logs of phone records was part of a routine program that has “gathered significant information on bad guys — but only on bad guys — over the years.”

That stance has unnerved some fellow Republicans and others who worry that the phone snooping is spawning the sort of aggressive Big Brother spying that many have long feared.

“They’ve gone way too far, and we’ve allowed it,” said Jack Staver, a conservative activist in Atlanta. “Our representatives all knew this was happening, and they refused to stand up for us. We’ve let it go too far, too. And I’m really tired of it.”

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The double-whammy came this week with the disclosure on Wednesday that the NSA has been collecting phone records of hundreds of millions of U.S. phone customers. A separate secret program, called Prism, was revealed Thursday that tracks the Internet usage of foreigners who use Microsoft, Google and other major Internet providers.

President Barack Obama sought to reassure Americans on Friday that their phone calls are not being surreptitiously recorded and that the security programs are subject to rigorous legislative oversight. The surveillance, which he said is needed to prevent terror attacks, is worth “modest encroachments on privacy.”

The outing of the two programs put Chambliss and other Georgia lawmakers in a dicey position. U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson said Friday the NSA surveillance of phone records is “not new news.” But he stressed that lawmakers are still searching for the right balance between protecting privacy while deterring security threats.

“I will be the first person to tell you that is a threading of the needle that is very difficult,” he said. “From time to time, a mistake is make but you are better off trying to find that sweet spot to protect the American people than have us vulnerable every single day to attacks like 9/11.”

Chambliss declined to comment on Friday, but in a press conference a day earlier he and Democratic U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein said the phone surveillance was part of a routine renewal under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

“Let me just emphasize, this is nothing particularly new,” Chambliss said on Thursday. “This has been going on for seven years under the auspices of the FISA authority and every member of the United States Senate has been advised of this.”

Some see the government intrusion as an appropriate tradeoff to better guarantee their security, while others greeted the news of the government’s extensive monitoring with the equivalent of a yawn.

“It really doesn’t matter to me,” said Karima Marshall, an insurance specialist in Dunwoody. “They’ve been tapping house phones and cellphones for years. I think it’s unnecessary and a waste of money, but it’s no surprise.”

There was hope that the details of the government intrusions would yield more transparency and force lawmakers, judges and the public to address a dilemma that’s raged long before the Sept. 11 terror attacks.

“We must have a thorough and public debate on how our government can balance the need for national security while protecting the basic liberties of its citizens,” said U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Decatur. “Americans have a right to know the power that they are granting their government.”

The question is how far is too far, said U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, R-Gainesville.

“How much civil liberties are we willing to give up in the name of protection?” said Collins. “That’s going to be the question.”