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Lynn Sweet: NSA data collection shows struggle of balancing civil liberties, keeping nation safe

Sen. Dick Durb| File photo

Sen. Dick Durbin | File photo

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Updated: July 8, 2013 6:45AM

WASHINGTON — For years, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) — perhaps President Barack Obama’s closest friend in Congress — has been sounding an alarm that the federal government’s power to gather personal information in the name of fighting terrorism has been overly intrusive and not subject to enough oversight.

Wednesday night’s scoop by the British newspaper, the Guardian, about the Obama administration’s National Security Agency secretly gathering phone data on tens of millions of Verizon customers, was the latest of a string of revelations — all related to government overreaching, to varying degrees — putting the Obama White House yet again on the defensive. On Thursday night, the Guardian and the Washington Post reported that NSA and FBI programs also search the major Internet companies for audio, video, photographs, emails and documents.

With the phone “metadata” harvesting out in the open, Durbin revealed on Thursday that he had learned earlier in classified briefings “some of” what was disclosed Wednesday in the Guardian story — and now can speak more freely about his concerns. Before, Durbin — and Senators Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Mark Udall (D-Colo.) talked in more circumspect terms about what they saw as domestic surveillance problems.

Durbin said the Verizon disclosure “will precipitate a very important debate about security and freedom.”

Who would have thought — when Obama was a state senator in Springfield — or a U.S. senator serving with Durbin — that as a post-9/11 president, he of all people would be struggling to strike a balance between protecting civil liberties and keeping the nation safe?

Beccause I am covering the first draft of history — not what I’ll discover 20 years from now in documents in the Obama Presidential Library about these past months — the temporal Obama story so far is that his second-term agenda is being overshadowed by recent scandals.

Congress has been eating up time holding hearings on the IRS targeting of conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status.

Attorney General Eric Holder’s Justice Department got a court order to inspect Associated Press reporters phone records. The department investigated a Fox News reporter to determine the source of a story — all this in the name of bottling up national security leaks.

Know what the big story for Thursday should have been? That House Republicans voted to ban funding for Obama’s signature “Dream Act” executive order, which put the brakes on the deportation of young immigrants here illegally through no fault of their own.

While all of these controversies have in common issues of an overreaching presidency, Obama does not singularly “own” the explosive Verizon revelations. With GOP and Democratic votes, Congress first approved domestic surveillance in the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, amended after the 9/11 attacks under the umbrella of former President George W. Bush’s Patriot Act.

I asked Durbin how the combined controversies — all coming at the same time — reflect on Obama.

“It raises a larger question, Lynn, than just this administration because it started under the previous administration,” Durbin said.

“And the question is what do we need to do to be safe in America, how far do we need to go, do we have to compromise our own privacy and rights to it? That is an important question that should be asked and answered constantly in a democracy.”

“I’ve been concerned about this program and what’s been involved in this for some time. I’ve been trying to be careful in how I’ve expressed that concern because we are dealing with classified information,” Durbin said.

A few weeks ago, I wrote that the IRS scandal was Obama’s biggest headache. Now the reaping of personal data, phone and Internet records — trumps it.

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