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Pioneer Editorial: Holding the White House accountable

The revelation late last week that the National Security Agency has been compiling a database of information on millions of Americans' everyday telephone calls is troubling and yet another indication that the Bush administration intends to keep on trampling over the privacy rights of American citizens for the sake of what it says is fighting terrorism.

There is no doubt that just how unprepared we were on Sept. 11, 2001, forced us to take serious steps to provide homeland security. The Patriot Act was a result of that devastating day, and this year as the act was reauthorized, we had the time to step back and try to define a line between securing the homeland and ensuring that individual rights are maintained as provided by our founding fathers in the U.S. Constitution.

As part of that debate, President Bush promised the nation that the NSA's domes-tic wiretapping program -- done without court order or oversight -- involved only international calls targeted to al-Qaeda suspects and would not involve wiretapping of American citizens within our borders with no terrorist connections.

Obviously, as USA Today reported last week, the NSA has been for years assembling records of millions of domestic calls -- again without court order or oversight -- which must be a violation of consumer protection laws. NSA simply asked several major telecommunications companies for their call data, with the exception of Qwest which rightly, we believe, suspected a violation of privacy laws.

Apparently the data collected does not include people's names or the contents of the calls, but that the government's top secret agency now knows which phone numbers called which other phone numbers is enough like George Orwell's "1984" to cause one to shutter. What is NSA doing with this data, involving law-abiding citizens who have the right to feel secure in their affairs?

Just as troubling is that the data-mining operation was overseen by Gen. Michael Hayden, then NSA head and slated to undergo this week confirmation hearings as President Bush's pick to head the CIA.

Several questions come to mind. The CIA has always been a civilian intelligence agency, providing a check to the nation's military intelligence gathering. Putting a sitting Air Force general in the CIA's top spot may gray those lines and skew independent intelligence analysis. Secondly, there has always been a defined jurisdictional line in agency activities -- the FBI handles domestic intelligence and security, the CIA operates only outside U.S. borders. Having the man who designed such clandestine domestic surveillance programs now in charge of the CIA also grays that jurisdictional border.

What is needed is a full-ranging inves-tigation by Congress into NSA's domestic surveillance programs and a thorough, complete, bipartisan examination of Hayden's nomination. It is time for Con-gress to exercise its role in bringing the Executive Branch back into balance.