U.S. Intelligence Walks Privacy Tightrope

NPR Senior News Analyst Daniel Schorr says that it is difficult for the intelligence community to monitor dispersed terrorist groups while at the same time protecting the privacy of Americans.

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DANIEL SCHORR: The CIA is marking 60 years since President Truman brought it into being. And if you don't see much celebration, it's because the agency doesn't have much to celebrate.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

NPR's senior news analyst Daniel Schorr.

SCHORR: The six decades are pockmarked with embarrassments - the overthrow of elected governments in Iran, Guatemala and Chile; the disastrous effort to invade Cuba; and later, to assassinate Fidel Castro. More recently, the intelligence community has been blamed for its slam-dunk willingness to aid the Bush administration in providing a rationale for invading Iraq. Altogether, a record that author Tim Weiner called a "Legacy of Ashes." Entering its seventh decade, the intelligence community finds itself in a quandary.

It has found that dispersed terrorist groups cannot be adequately detected by conventional eavesdropping, and the high-tech digital surveillance methods that might unearth them pose a potential threat to the privacy and civil liberties of Americans. The administration's reluctance to come clean with the problem has lead to endless squabbling and confusion in which Attorney General Alberto Gonzales has become enmeshed. Now, the administration is making a hesitant approach to level in with Congress about a problem it still doesn't want to discuss openly.

The subject was broached by Mike McConnell, the top-level director of National Intelligence in an article in foreign affairs magazine titled "Making Intelligence Smarter." He said that accessing and processing vast amounts of digital data while safeguarding the privacy of Americans is inherently difficult and presents a challenge. McConnell, followed it up with a letter to Senator Arlen Specter, the ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee, urging Congress before recessing at the end of this week to give the intelligence community broader latitude to intercept all kinds of communications.

Harry Reid, the Senate Democratic leader, is talking of a possible compromise. So is House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. It may be that a forward pass may avail the administration more in this endless end runs.

This is Daniel Schorr.

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