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Defenders of U.S. eavesdropping often say that it's done with good intentions, principally to prevent the next terrorist attack. But critics argue that 21st century surveillance poses its own serious risks to Americans' privacy. NPR's Ari Shapiro explores this tension between the fear of an attack and the fear of government efforts to stop one.
ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: When National Intelligence Director James Clapper testified before Congress this week, the spy chief described a big worry that keeps people in his business up at night. Of course he described it in stereotypical bureaucratic Washington speak.
JAMES CLAPPER: We also have to remain mindful of the potential negative long-term impact of overcorrecting the authorizations granted to the intelligence community.
SHAPIRO: The potential negative long-term impact of overcorrecting. Translation, Clapper is afraid that people like Bruce Ackerman of Yale Law School will finally get their way.
BRUCE ACKERMAN: What we should do right now is to seize this moment so as to control the intelligence services and the emergency measures of the future.
SHAPIRO: Ackerman's view that government spies have gone too far has a lot of support right now. A growing group of law makers on both sides of the aisle believe the NSA needs to be reined in. This has not always been a popular point of view. For comparison, let's rewind the clock more than a decade.
JANE HARMAN: After 9/11 we all thought - we includes me - that we would be attacked again.
SHAPIRO: Jane Harman was the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee back then. Today, she runs the Woodrow Wilson Center.
HARMAN: The programs we stood up were designed to block the next attack, prevent and disrupt bad guys who wanted to harm us physically. And we have a lot of those programs.
SHAPIRO: Those spying programs reflected what the public wanted, a muscular government that would do whatever it took to prevent the next 9/11. Today, public attitudes seem to have shifted. Security fears have faded. Privacy fears have grown. Jane Harman's attitude has shifted too.
HARMAN: Now 12 years out, we do need to rethink how we do this.
JACK GOLDSMITH: I think that these things do go in waves.
SHAPIRO: Jack Goldsmith was a senior Justice official in the Bush administration. Now he's at Harvard Law.
GOLDSMITH: The pendulum does swing back and forth and it's natural for the people to be worried about aggressive government action when they can't fully perceive the same threat that the government on the inside sees.
SHAPIRO: To some extent, President Obama has embraced this pendulum swing. He has scaled drone strikes way back since their peak in 2010. Even as he oversees massive spying programs, he has asked an outside team to review those programs and make recommendations about how they could be limited. He summarized his thinking about these issues in a speech this year at the National Defense University.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: This war, like all wars, must end. That's what history advises. That's what our democracy demands.
SHAPIRO: It's very unusual for presidents to voluntarily give up some of the office's powers, but that's what Obama says he plans to do.
OBAMA: Unless we discipline our thinking, our definitions, our actions, we may be drawn into more wars we don't need to fight, or continue to grant presidents on bound powers more suited for traditional armed conflicts between nation states.
SHAPIRO: It was a surprising promise from a president and one that could impact Obama's successors, too. But it is a promise Obama has not yet fulfilled, says Karen Greenberg. She runs the Center on National Security at Fordham Law School.
KAREN GREENBERG: Whatever President Obama's best intentions were, he has found himself unable to really change a policy. And certainly that's the case in terms of the surveillance powers that his administration has embraced.
SHAPIRO: At least that's what the public can see. The White House says, behind the scenes, the review of surveillance policies has already reached some conclusions which have led the policy changes. But because the review is ongoing and the policies are classified, right now the public has no way of knowing what those changes might be. Ari Shapiro, NPR News, the White House.
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