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Editorial: Keep Americans informed about details of government surveillance

This image made available by The Guardian Newspaper Londshows an undated image Edward Snowden 29. Snowden worked as contract employee

This image made available by The Guardian Newspaper in London shows an undated image of Edward Snowden, 29. Snowden worked as a contract employee at the National Security Agency and is the source of The Guardian's disclosures about the U.S. government's secret surveillance programs, as the British newspaper reported Sunday, June 9, 2013. (AP Photo/The Guardian, Ewen MacAskill) NO SALES NO ARCHIVE ONE TIME USE ONLY MANDATORY CREDIT

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Updated: July 15, 2013 7:04PM

Setting aside for the moment what price Edward Snowden eventually will pay for leaking information about U.S. surveillance programs, this is something all Americans had every right to know about.

The American Civil Liberties Union took a step in the right direction Tuesday by filing a lawsuit in federal court. It may be the only way we find out exactly what was going on.

On Wednesday, NSA director Keith Alexander defended the surveillance, saying, “We’re trying to protect Americans.” And, yes, it is essential that we are vigilant against those who would attack us. Officials have said the surveillance programs, including tracking our phone calls, have helped to disrupt dozens of terrorist attacks.

But in an open democratic society, you need clear, public rules about — and limits on — how much government can spy on its own people.

Collecting almost unimaginable mounds of phone and email data potentially puts too much power in the hands of the government when it is dealing with citizens, particularly those it doesn’t like for political or other reasons. The government now knows who Americans called, and how long they talked. It has our emails, photos, documents and audio and video chats. It has everything it needs — right now — to create, if it chooses to, a modern equivalent of a secret police dossier with intimate details of our lives. Clear safeguards must be in place going forward to protect Americans’ privacy, and officials should be required to demonstrate they can’t get critical information using less-invasive techniques.

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper’s denial in March Senate testimony that the NSA collects reams of Americans’ data — a denial he is trying wiggle out of with almost comical effect — shows how such a program can help break down trust between a government and its citizens.

We can never strike a perfect balance between civil liberties and counterterrorism. There will always be trade-offs .

Moreover, we can’t allow a healthy skepticism of government sleuthing to become paranoia. We don’t doubt that most of those behind the surveillance programs, which date back to the Bush administration, are simply trying to protect Americans.

But those who argue as justification that no direct privacy abuses have been uncovered miss the point. Presidents come and go, and some are more trustworthy than others.

In the wrong hands, this kind of massive surveillance dragnet creates enormous opportunity for government to ruin the lives of innocent Americans.

We should not be asked to trust. We must be able to verify.

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