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How Much Should U.S. Intrude to Protect Citizens?

Gwen Ifill speaks with national security experts about how far the U.S. government should go in protecting citizens from threats here and abroad.

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    The Obama administration took steps today to curb one Bush-era terror-fighting tool while at the same time extending others. The Justice Department is making it tougher for the government to withhold information by claiming secrecy protection.

    Agencies under threat of a lawsuit will now have to convince a team of Justice Department lawyers that national security would be threatened. Attorney General Eric Holder's statement said the new rule "sets out clear procedures that will provide greater accountability and ensure the state secrets privilege is invoked only when necessary and in the narrowest way possible."

    During the Bush administration, information considered sensitive could be withheld based on the judgment of a single official. In April, President Obama seemed to endorse restraining such executive power.


    There are going to be cases in which national security interests are genuinely at stake and that you can't litigate without revealing covert activities or classified information that would genuinely compromise our safety.

    But searching for ways to redact, to carve out certain cases, to see what can be done so that a judge in chambers can review information without it being in open court, you know, there should be some additional tools so that it's not such a blunt instrument.


    On Capitol Hill today, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Vermont's Patrick Leahy, welcomed the new approach.


    We want the privilege, but we don't want to misuse — we have to have mechanisms to guide its application. And today's announcement marks progress.


    But the Obama administration is not rolling back all Bush-era anti-terror policy. At a hearing on reauthorizing the Patriot Act, administration officials resisted Democratic efforts to add new civil liberties protections to the existing law.

    The sections of the law up for renewal continue to allow investigators to use roving wiretaps to track terror suspects without having to apply for a new warrant; the FBI to get a court order to seize "any tangible items," like diaries and computers, relating to a terrorism investigation; and to enable the FBI to wiretap suspects unconnected to terrorist groups or foreign governments.

    The committee's top Republican, Alabama's Jeff Sessions, said all three should be extended.


    They are unequivocal about the administration's position that we are still at war with al-Qaida and that these provisions should be re-authorized because they are important tools in this war and to make America safe.


    The Patriot Act provisions are due to expire at the end of the year.

    For a closer look at the shifting debate over how far government should go to protect its citizens, I'm joined by Elizabeth Goitein, director of the Liberty and National Security Project at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law, and John Eastman, dean of the Chapman University School of Law in Orange, California.

    John Eastman, when you look at what the president, what the attorney general laid out today when it comes to these secrecy provisions, do you think that he went far enough, or did he go too far?