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A welcome debate over NSA

President Barack Obama last week promised to try to declassify more about two electronic surveillance programs at the center of a renewed national debate on security and privacy. He should. Over the past week, that debate has been enriched by congressional hearings and the slow release of new information, clarifying how these programs operate.

The government collection of Americans’ phone metadata remains surprising in the vast amount of information that is sopped up. But the National Security Agency claims it is using only a tiny fraction of the information, querying the database for links to fewer than 300 numbers last year. If so, that raises two questions.

First, couldn’t the public have known about the data collection before? No terrorist would have been surprised that the U.S. government is looking for and tracking a limited set of suspect phone numbers.

Second, does the government even need to maintain its own vast database of phone records? In response to a question from Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., Gen. Keith B. Alexander, the NSA director, indicated that it might be possible for the agency to run its program while leaving records in the hands of telecommunications companies. In fact, relevant government agencies are evaluating the program. Could the program work about as well with telecommunications firms keeping the data? If so, why didn’t the NSA work with Congress to pursue that policy in the first place? Though there’s no guarantee that these companies will be strong advocates for their customers when proceedings are secret, at least there would be some opportunity for outside pushback against any overly broad or otherwise unjustified data demands.

We don’t see an argument for anti-government hysteria in these considerations. We do, however, want as informed a debate as possible about how the government is balancing security and privacy.