No more ‘trust us’

President heads a step in the right direction on the overreaching NSA

In his recent speech outlining the changes he plans to make in the National Security Agency, President Obama walked a tightrope between the recommendations of his own blue-ribbon panel and the wishes of the government’s intelligence community.

He was unwilling to go as far in limiting the powers of the NSA as his panel had recommended, but he also made it clear that he accepted the critique being made of the NSA and pledged to rein in its most troubling program, the bulk collection of telephone metadata.

As the president said, “Given the unique power of the state, it is not enough for leaders to say, ‘Trust us, we won’t abuse the data we collect. … Our system of government is built on the premise that our liberty cannot depend on the good intentions of those in power; it depends on the law to constrain those in power.”

Specifically, he said, telephone bulk collection “could … open the door to more intrusive bulk-collection programs in the future” and, while it was authorized by Congress, “it has never been subject to vigorous public debate.”

Obama wasn’t ready to abandon the program altogether, however. Some entity, private or public, will continue collecting and storing the data, but the NSA will have to get court approval to search the collection. That won’t entirely please the civil libertarians, but it’s certainly a step in the right direction.

Most important, the president has set the stage for Congress to act. By underlining the importance of privacy protections and admitting that “trust us” is no longer valid, if it ever was, he has issued a challenge to lawmakers and the public alike: Keep moving in this direction.

It’s the kind of positive change Edward Snowden was hoping would occur when he began revealing the truth about the NSA.