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Don’t underestimate risks of government spying

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Story highlights

Some officials dismiss the impact of NSA revelations, saying every country spies

Julian Zelizer: It's dangerous to ignore the risk that spying will become too intrusive

In the 1960s, 1970s, activists were illegally targeted by government agencies in the U.S.

Zelizer: It's crucial to set limits for government agencies such as NSA

Editor’s Note: Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. He is the author of “Jimmy Carter” and “Governing America.”

CNN —  

As the story about the National Security Agency surveillance continued to unfold last week, some of President Obama’s supporters, as well as some of his Republican critics, were quick to jump to his defense.

Chairman of the House of Representatives Intelligence Committee Mike Rogers warned that the allegations about the NSA were wrong. “They are seeing three or four pieces of a thousand-piece puzzle and trying to come to a conclusion.”

Speaking before a congressional committee, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said the monitoring of calls by 35 world leaders was just about spying, something that every country did and so there was nothing to be worked up about. “Some of this reminds me of the classic movie ‘Casablanca’: ‘My God, there’s gambling going on here,’” Clapper said.

In a period of crippling partisan warfare that continually brings Washington to a standstill, the leadership of both parties seem to have easily reached bipartisan agreement that the existing national security programs should be left alone.

Julian Zelizer
Larry Levanti
Julian Zelizer

But these arguments miss the importance of accountability in our national security operations. The notion that citizens should just trust the government to do the right thing on national security poses too many dangers.

The United States has a long history of national security agencies, sometimes with presidential concurrence, misusing their authority and power to harass American citizens. This was the case in the 1960s, when Democrats and Republicans used government institutions to intimidate and harass social activists who were fighting for causes such as civil rights and to protest the war in Vietnam.

With the approval of Attorney Gen