When major news strikes—and the trove of NSA revelations is certainly major news—it's time to shine for major newspaper editorial boards. Here's a look at how some of the country's biggest papers view the burgeoning scandal.
The New York Times
The key paragraphs from today's print editorial (emphasis mine):
Within hours of the disclosure that federal authorities routinely collect data on phone calls Americans make, regardless of whether they have any bearing on a counterterrorism investigation, the Obama administration issued the same platitude it has offered every time President Obama has been caught overreaching in the use of his powers: Terrorists are a real menace and you should just trust us to deal with them because we have internal mechanisms (that we are not going to tell you about) to make sure we do not violate your rights.
Those reassurances have never been persuasive — whether on secret warrants to scoop up a news agency's phone records or secret orders to kill an American suspected of terrorism — especially coming from a president who once promised transparency and accountability.
The administration has now lost all credibility on this issue. Mr. Obama is proving the truism that the executive branch will use any power it is given and very likely abuse it. That is one reason we have long argued that the Patriot Act, enacted in the heat of fear after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks by members of Congress who mostly had not even read it, was reckless in its assignment of unnecessary and overbroad surveillance powers.
Strong as these words may seem, they were actually once a bit stronger. As Gawker pointed out Thursday night, the New York Times actually softened the tone of its NSA editorial, changing the original line that "The administration has now lost all credibility" to "The administration has now lost all credibility on this issue." The Times defended the change to Politico Friday morning, saying it was done for "clarity."
The Wall Street Journal
Never one to be outdone in making a splash, the Wall Street Journal's editorial board went in a bit of a different direction with a piece titled "Thank You For Data Mining." Key paragraphs here, again emphasis added:
Well, another day, another Washington furor. This one is over a National Security Agency phone data monitoring program, but unlike the other White House scandals there seems to be little here that is scandalous. The existence of the program was exposed years ago and such surveillance is a core part of the war on terror, if we can still use that term.
The real danger from this leak is the potential political overreaction. The NSA is collecting less information than appears on a monthly phone bill (no names), but Americans would worry less about the government spying on them if, for example, the Justice Department wasn't secretly spying on the Associated Press and Fox News. Or if the IRS wasn't targeting White House critics. Or if the Administration in general showed a higher regard for the law when it conflicts with its policy preferences.
The liberals who spent the Bush years warning about a knock on the door at least have the virtue of consistency, if not the Republicans who are now depicting the NSA program as some J. Edgar Hoover-Bill Moyers operation to target domestic enemies. Kentucky Senator Rand Paul has already introduced the Fourth Amendment Restoration Act of 2013. Yet surveillance is more critical than ever to stopping terror attacks now that Mr. Obama has all but abolished extended interrogation and military detention and invited Congress to limit drone strikes.
The piece also refers to Glenn Greenwald, who wrote the NSA stories for The Guardian, as a "committed anti-antiterror partisan."
The Washington Post
...If the program is so extensive and there are two layers of court review — at the collection phase and at the access phase — why couldn't Americans know about this process before now? The really sensitive information is not its existence — at that, ordinary Americans are probably more surprised than any terrorist is — but rather the intelligence the government uses to target individuals within the database. Also: Are all telephone companies involved? Does the government use the information for "data mining" — that is, searching for patterns that might indicate terrorist activity? It's easy to imagine that retroactive access to phone records would be a useful tool after the National Security Agency or the FBI linked a number with a terrorist, but what have the benefits of the program been?
In the days after the Boston bombings, many asked why the government didn't connect the dots on the Tsarnaev brothers. Now, many are asking why the government wants so much information about so many Americans. The legitimate values of liberty and safety often compete. But for the public to be able to make a reasonable assessment of whether these programs are worth the security benefits, it needs more explanation.
The paper's editorial board brought the outrage this morning. The two opening paragraphs:
By any measure, the government's secret seizure of hundreds of millions of Americans' phone records over the past seven years is outrageous. But it shouldn't be the least bit surprising.
When a panicked Congress, driven by a panicked electorate, hands the government nearly unlimited power to collect people's records — then makes sure the intrusion will be kept secret — overreach is guaranteed.
And, for good measure, the concluding one:
Anyone, right or left, who cares about individual rights has reason to be appalled. Congress should demand answers and tighten the law.
The main takeway in an editorial titled, "Barack Obama, Meet George Orwell":
Responsibility doesn't stop with the White House. Congress, which is supposed to check instances of overreach by the executive branch, has instead gone to great lengths to abet them. Many critics dismiss the Patriot Act of 2001, which laid the groundwork for aggressive surveillance, as a product of post-Sept. 11 panic. But in the past two years Congress has twice voted down amendments to require government disclosure of the scope of such snooping, including data on whether the government had engaged in warrantless searches of communications involving American citizens.
We have long assumed the invocations of Orwell that arise to meet every terrorism investigation are hyperbolic. We are also mindful that the world is dangerous, and liberty must be balanced with security. However, the benefit of the doubt afforded to the government is wearing thin. Are we living in a police state? We'd like to know.
And lastly, from the paper that kicked this all off. The big two paragraphs:
Few Americans believe that they live in a police state; indeed many would be outraged at the suggestion. Yet the everyday fact that the police have the right to monitor the communications of all its citizens – in secret – is a classic hallmark of a state that fears freedom as well as championing it. Ironically, the Guardian's revelations were published 69 years to the day since US and British soldiers launched the D-day invasion of Europe. The young Americans who fought their way up the Normandy beaches rightly believed they were helping free the world from a tyranny. They did not think that they were making it safe for their own rulers to take such sweeping powers as these over their descendants.
But it is American civil liberties that are primarily in the spotlight now. Ever since 9/11, the US has allowed the war on terror to frame a new domestic authoritarianism that is strikingly at odds with America's passionate sense of its own freedom. This week's revelations have stunned millions of Americans whose justified outrage against 9/11 surely never led them to expect such routine and unrestrained surveillance on such a massive scale. US politicians have a poor post-9/11 record of confronting such powers. Even now, it is possible that many will look the other way. But this is an existential challenge to American freedom. That it has been so relentlessly prosecuted by a leader who once promised to stand up against such authority, makes the challenge more pressing, not less.