What must the federal government do to protect us from another devastating terrorist attack on our soil? At what point do anti-terrorist measures go too far, undermining our civil liberties more than they shield us from terrorists?
We wrote that in this space to open up an editorial nearly 10 years ago. And yet, here we are with those same questions as new information clearly tilts the discussion toward the "going too far" end of the spectrum.
Certainly we did not envision -- but perhaps all of us should -- that the Patriot Act would lead to last week's startling revelation that the National Security Agency is collecting Americans' landline and mobile phone records on an "ongoing, daily basis." While it was revealed in a court-order made public by The Guardian newspaper in Britain that Verizon was to turn over its records, experts say it's likely the program extends to other phone companies as well.
Another program also came to light last week through a report by The Washington Post and The Guardian that the NSA and FBI can scour Internet companies for information, though some of the biggest -- Apple, Google and Facebook among them -- say they have not allowed direct access to the government. Another possible program reported by The Wall Street Journal lets the NSA tap into credit card transaction records.
How outraged should we be? A spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union says the right to privacy "has not just been compromised -- it has been defeated."
Interestingly enough, there is not unanimity among Democrats and Republicans in the Senate on this issue. Some on each side expressed outrage and concern and some on each side said we should chill out. Since we've had presidents now from both parties use the extraordinary powers the Patriot Act provides, it no longer is a Democrat-vs.-Republican issue. It's a government-vs.-citizenry issue.
"If you're not getting a call from a terrorist organization, you've got nothing to worry about," said GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. "Everyone should just calm down and understand that this isn't anything new," added Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid of Nevada.
We side, however, more with Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon. "When law-abiding Americans make phone calls, who they call, when they call and where they call is private information." We also agree with him that this should spark a real debate in this country on privacy and should lead to revisions in the Patriot Act.
The Obama administration's move to declassify details of the phone records program is a good first step, though clearly a defensive move. But we can't help but wonder what new programs may come to light and what other seemingly private information is being secretly studied by government analysts.
It's time we get those questions answered and determine whether the actions taken truly are successfully fighting terrorism.