PORTLAND — U.S. Sen. Angus King, a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said Friday that he was aware of the government’s collection of Internet data and phone records in a broad sense, but did not know the specifics of the two programs that were revealed this week. He also acknowledged that there are some things he knows that he is not able to share for security reasons.

In an interview at the Portland Press Herald’s offices, King said the current debate is complex but not new.

“We’ve always struggled with how to create a government powerful enough to protect us but not so powerful that it can abuse us,” he said.

On Wednesday, the Guardian newspaper revealed that the National Security Agency has been collecting the phone records of hundreds of millions of U.S. phone customers. Another secret program revealed Thursday by The Washington Post scours the Internet usage of foreign nationals overseas who use any of nine U.S.-based Internet providers, including Microsoft, Facebook and Google.

Civil liberties groups from both sides of the political spectrum expressed concern about the revelations, saying they confirm the suspicions of many groups wary of government intrusion into Americans’ private lives.

King, like many other members of Congress who have spoken in the last two days, including his colleague and fellow Intelligence Committee member Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, spoke Friday about the need to find a balance between security and privacy. For instance, he said, Americans have come to accept that they must take off their shoes at security checkpoints whenever they fly and they must allow TSA employees to go through their belongings. They accept the intrusion, King said, because they have been convinced that, post-9/11, it’s necessary for national security.

However, if travelers were asked to take off all of their clothes at the airport, not just shoes, they would probably consider that unreasonable, King said.

An independent who joined the Senate in January, King joined the Senate Intelligence Committee along with Collins this year.

Collins’ office said Thursday night that she was not briefed on the surveillance programs during her earlier leadership role on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

King’s biggest concern about Thursday’s revelation has to do with the custody of the information. Americans trust the tracking of their Internet and phone activities by the companies they do business with, but most polls show that the public has little trust in the government. Even if the government is not using the data unless it needs to, King said he’s still uncomfortable that the government has it at all.

King said he would be more comfortable with people’s private information staying with the Internet and phone companies until that point when security agencies such as the NSA and the FBI need it. At the same time, he said, most people didn’t object after the Boston Marathon bombings when investigators looked through the suspects’ phone records to see if they were connected to a larger plot.

“It’s hard to have total security with total privacy,” he said.

Others are not convinced. Zachary Heiden, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, said the revelations this week were shocking and disturbing, “not because they were unexpected but because we were given proof that this has been going on. We always suspected.”

Heiden said he agreed with King to a point about trying to find a balance between privacy and security, but his analogy about airport security may not be the best comparison.

“That limited (intrusion) is carefully monitored and challenged by groups like ours sometimes,” he said. “With the NSA, no one knows what they are doing.”

Few political issues unite progressive groups such as the ACLU with libertarian and tea party groups, but privacy seems to be one of them.

Vic Berardelli, state director of the Maine Republican Liberty Caucus, said in an emailed statement Friday that the recent news is part of a pattern of “the steady erosion of liberty by government over free citizens.” He said the government’s collection of data without probable cause, along with other recent events such as the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to allow DNA sampling without cause, the targeting of conservative groups for scrutiny by the IRS and the seizure by the government of phone and email records of Associated Press reporters, should be a warning to Americans to be concerned.

The issue of privacy and access to records also is playing out at the local level, including in Maine. State lawmakers recently approved a bill that would require law enforcement agencies to obtain a warrant before they can access GPS location data from cellphones, which is often used in crime investigations. Currently, authorities can get that information simply by issuing a subpoena to a phone company, but the burden of proof for a subpoena is much lower than for a warrant.

The bill awaits final passage because of concerns that it might require additional funding to ensure compliance.

Eric Brakey, chairman of the Defense of Liberty PAC and state director of Ron Paul’s presidential campaign last year, added to the list of worrisome developments the Obama administration’s decision to use drone strikes to assassinate suspected terrorists.

“His presidency on civil liberties is not unlike George W. Bush,” Brakey said. It was Bush who pushed for the Patriot Act that allowed this type of activity to happen, although Congress has reauthorized the law under Obama. “This will show you who the principled people in politics are, people who say ‘It’s only wrong when the other guy is doing it.’ “

King said that although most issues in Washington, D.C., turn into political fights, not policy debates, he doesn’t think that will happen on this issue.

At issue is whether the government is violating the Fourth Amendment, which protects against unreasonable search and seizure. But King said the amendment does not prohibit all search and seizure, only that which is deemed unreasonable.

While Obama’s national intelligence director, James Clapper, said late Thursday that the leak of the information about the intelligence programs to the media was “reprehensible” and said it could jeopardize intelligence-gathering efforts going forward, King said the fact that the information is now known is a good thing. He said it will give Congress a chance to reassess these intelligence-gathering efforts “to be sure that we’re doing it in a way that minimized intrustion of privacy.”

Augusta and Waterville news

Get news and events from your towns in your inbox every Friday.


  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.