An Overdue Overhaul of U.S. Spy Agencies

Recent leaks about Uncle Sam’s Big Brother tactics will spur the first major reforms in four decades.

In the wake of Edward Snowden’s disclosures about the extent of the federal government’s spying on both its own citizens and foreign officials, look for the White House to announce the creation of a blue-ribbon panel to reform and rein in the web of U.S. intelligence agencies.

Americans don’t want their privacy to become collateral damage in the war on terror, and an increasing number of them are demanding to know how the government spies on them and how much the National Security Agency is engaging in cyber-based cloak-and-dagger activities. Many go further, insisting that Washington simply stop prying into their lives.

The pleas for protecting innocent Americans whose privacy is being compromised by an unrestrained National Security Agency and other spy operations are gradually being absorbed by policymakers. As one Washington insider puts it: “Civil liberties aren’t an issue of the right or an issue of the left. There’s no ideology that supports a violation of individual privacy. The leaders in both parties know they have to clamp down before the spy community gets too big to fail, or too big to be stopped.”

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Both the White House and Congress are aware that among voters, the “I-don’t-have-anything-to-fear” attitude is fading, and by next year, they’ll likely catch up with the opinion of the American public. And that will lead to the first sweeping examination of the clandestine services in more than a generation.

In fact, a review ordered by President Obama into the standards and practices of these services is already under way. But don’t expect much from it. The review is being conducted inside the Obama administration, so it won’t carry much weight with Congress, or with critics who charge the White House with covering up the controversial spy programs.

And so far, neither Congress nor the courts have done much to rein in the NSA. Partisan gridlock and leadership that reflexively protects the nation’s spy agencies have rendered the House and Senate toothless, while the federal courts, citing current law, routinely rule in favor of government surveillance programs.

Ultimately, Obama and the bipartisan leaders of Congress will have no choice but to appoint a panel made up of distinguished experts in intelligence gathering, technology, ethics and law. Polls show Americans fear that the spy community has overreached, and a majority of Americans blame the White House, Congress and the courts for allowing it to happen. Given Washington’s inability to get even the most rudimentary laws put on the books, however, the best chance of actually achieving change is a commission empowered with reforming the clandestine services. The tricky part will be doing so without compromising the feds’ ability to track terrorists.

Kenneth R. Bazinet
Associate Editor, The Kiplinger Letter