Strategic Horizons: After NSA Leaks, ‘Trust but Verify’ Applies to U.S. Government

The day after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on New York City and Washington, I wrote in my notebook, "The big question of the next few years will be whether an 18th-century Constitution is adequate for security in the 21st century. The nation will have a huge debate on this."

As it turned out, I was correct on the first assertion. When drafting the Constitution, America's Founding Fathers could not have anticipated the intense connectivity of the modern world, where catastrophes of any kind have cascading effects both tangible and psychological. They could not anticipate the existence of small cells of sociopaths with the intention and capability to cause maximum harm to the United States and manipulate mass fear. But I was wrong on my second assertion: There has been no far-reaching national debate on whether an 18th-century Constitution is adequate for the 21st century. In particular, Americans have not decided how much privacy they are willing to surrender for greater security from shadowy, nonstate enemies.

Recent revelations about government programs to sift through telephone and Internet data leaked by Edward Snowden, a low-level defense contractor, may finally unleash such a national debate. Combined with the ongoing Bradley Manning/WikiLeaks episode, Snowden's actions call into question the process of giving young people, some of whom exercise questionable judgment, access to large amounts of vital national security information. That is an important issue. But the disclosure of classified information may also begin a broader discussion about the relationship between privacy and security.

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