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Americans’ trust in Obama fading with each scandal

President Barack Obamgestures as he speaks San Jose Calif.  Friday June 7 2013. The president defended his government's secret

President Barack Obama gestures as he speaks in San Jose, Calif. , Friday, June 7, 2013. The president defended his government's secret surveillance, saying Congress has repeatedly authorized the collection of America's phone records and U.S. internet use. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

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Updated: July 12, 2013 6:17AM

National defense is a pre-eminent priority of government. So is preserving our civil liberties. The uproar over disclosures about the massive surveillance of telephone records by the National Security Agency demonstrates, in general, the precarious balancing act necessary to mesh the two priorities, and, in particular, evidence President Barack Obama is losing the American people’s trust that his administration can maintain that delicate balance.

Fifty-nine percent of voters oppose the phone sweeps, according to a Rasmussen poll. I think the verdict is still out that the NSA’s collection of millions of phone records unreasonably violates privacy as our intelligence agencies pursue terrorists. As Obama noted, no one’s calls are being listened to, or names revealed without a court order. The huge files of phone numbers, calls made, when and where to, are analyzed by supercomputers for patterns of activity to track down terrorists.

That’s not to say there aren’t troubling aspects to this. Though we’ve known about this practice since the Bush presidency, we were not aware of the frequency or magnitude of the phone record sweeps. Also disturbing is that the NSA has built a million-square-foot facility in Utah to store this personal data apparently forever. Why is that necessary if, as Obama claims, the threat of mega-attacks is receding, enabling the country to confront terrorism as a largely criminal matter as it did before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks? I don’t think sweeping phone records and storing them indefinitely would have passed muster in the pre-9/11 era.

This enormous storehouse of personal data on virtually every American using a phone is a honey pot for those susceptible to abusing government power. And we’ve seen a lot of that.

The Internal Revenue Service singled out conservative and Republican groups for intimidation. The Justice Department spied on journalists. The National Labor Relations Board thumbed its nose at two federal court rulings declaring its actions unconstitutional.

The administration has been disingenuous if not outright lying to the American people and Congress. James Clapper, director of national intelligence, flatly told lawmakers that no such massive sweeps of phone records were occurring. IRS executive Lois Lerner used the Fifth Amendment to avoid testifying. Attorney General Eric Holder told Congress he had never been involved with any potential prosecution of the press; he also signed off on a search warrant labeling a Washington journalist as a potential criminal. Both can’t be true.

In the days after the murder of a U.S. ambassador and three other Americans in Libya, administration operatives endeavored to shade the truth about the Benghazi attack. Lisa Jackson, former administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, and others have maintained secret email accounts that suspiciously look like an effort to avoid oversight.

Obama’s reaction is that, essentially, he’s out of the loop. For example, he said he learned about the IRS and Justice controversies from newspaper accounts. What else is going on that he — and we — don’t know about? Given this record, is it unreasonable to wonder if Holder, or another attorney general pursuing a probe of leaks of government secrets, might not turn to the Utah storehouse of phone records to track the calls and movements of journalists? And what havoc could a politically motivated IRS or a president bent on destroying his enemies do with access to such data?

Scandals have consequences. Combatting terrorists who use our ordinary communications to plot their outrages requires surveillance methods that go right up to the line on civil liberties. It’s dangerous for the nation that the scandals on his watch are eroding Americans’ trust in Obama and his administration.

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