US Experts Call for Debate on National Security, Civil Liberties

June 15,2013

News organizations and civil rights groups are among those angry over recent reports that the Obama administration has searched the phone records of journalists. That revelation was followed by reports of an extensive government program collecting the phone and Internet records of millions of Americans. Media and privacy experts say there's a need for a national debate on how Americans should balance civil liberties and national security.

The controversy has caused outrage - with critics claiming there is too much government overreach, that it goes too far and is too intrusive.

Frank Sesno, director of the George Washington University School of Media and Public Affairs, calls the Justice Department's search of journalists' phone records abusive.

“To reach out and scoop up two months’ worth of phone calls from maybe as many as, or nearly, two dozen reporters… this is a gross intrusion into the way journalism needs to be conducted, into the way reporters need to protect their sources, and into the kind of flow of information that is required in a free and open society.”

Sesno says journalists must acknowledge that there is a balance between the public’s right to know and the government’s responsibility to protect certain information to keep the public safe. But there is a limit, he says.

“Where it gets very dangerous is if the government turns to those who are asking those questions, turns to journalists, and says ‘if you pursue this information, that’s criminal’ - because the pursuit of information should not be criminal.

Despite the political criticism, Americans overall are somewhat tolerant of government surveillance.

One recent survey found that 56 percent of Americans say the National Security Agency’s telephone tracking program is an acceptable way to investigate terrorism.

President Barack Obama says he welcomes a debate about the tradeoff between civil liberties and security.

Former New York Times reporter and editor Bill Kovach says it is the president’s responsibility to begin such a conversation.

“We’re now as a country facing an enemy, ill-defined, hardly known to most people, hard to track, small groups engaged in all kinds of secret activity. And with all the technology available, the challenge to the president and the attorney general is extraordinary. They should take it on themselves to begin an education, a discussion with journalists and the American people describing this conflict, how they feel about it, and how we should step and move forward.”

Kovach and others say Americans sorely need a debate on how new communications technology intersects with the rights enshrined in the Constitution.