What's a Scandal and What Is Not

IRS probe is a scandal but NSA snooping may be legitimate.

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It would be wrong to conflate the many scandals and setbacks currently afflicting the Obama administration and view them as a gigantic example of government run amok.

The problem is that this kind of imprecision could harm efforts to correct real abuses and may cause members of Congress to go too far in changing surveillance programs that, while troublesome, are not illegal and can be quite effective in fighting terrorism.

[READ: NSA Spying Revelations Will Hurt Americans' Faith in Government]

Two revelations strike me as genuine scandals or potential scandals. First, there was the Internal Revenue Service's targeting of conservative groups for inappropriate scrutiny when these groups sought tax-exempt status. This seems to be a real abuse for which the IRS needs to be held accountable.

Second, there was the Justice Department's effort to seize communications information from the Associated Press and Fox News reporter James Rosen in separate federal investigations of leaks. These were overreaches that need to be remedied.

The United States Capitol is seen from the Washington Monument, Sunday, June 2, 2013, in Washington.
The United States Capitol is seen from the Washington Monument, Sunday, June 2, 2013, in Washington.

But there is a different category involving the National Security Agency that shouldn't be lumped in with the others. The NSA seized phone records from Verizon, apparently to track down terrorists abroad – a legitimate goal – even though many innocent Americans have been swept into the snooping. The NSA also gained information by collecting billions of emails, phone messages and other forms of communication, including communication through social media, under a program called PRISM.

[READ: Report: NSA Contract Worker Is Surveillance Source]

This amazingly broad program also seems designed to track down foreign terrorists, not keep track of U.S. citizens. And reputable sources say it has already led to the thwarting of at least one terror plot. U.S. officials say there are controls built into the system, such as the requirement that a special court rule on whether the most intensive surveillance methods are appropriate.

James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, told NBC News Sunday, "We're trying to minimize those invasions of privacy and keep them to an absolute minimum and only focus on those targets that really do pose a threat, and to not invade anyone's privacy – communications, telephone calls, emails – if they're not involved in plotting against these United States. And so as the technology changes...we have to adapt as well to both provide that security and also ensure civil liberties and privacy."

[READ: With PRISM, FBI Has No 'Going Dark' Argument]

These are worthy goals and welcome assurances. It remains to be seen how well the NSA lives up to them.

More News:

  • Opinion: Throwing America’s Privacy Under the Bus
  • Washington Post: NSA Spying Included Major Internet Giants
  • Anonymous' Leaks Alleged PRISM Surveillance Documents
  • Ken Walsh covers the White House and politics for U.S. News. He writes the daily blog "Ken Walsh's Washington" for usnews.com, and "The Presidency" column for the U.S. News Weekly. He is the author of the new book "Prisoners of the White House: The Isolation of America's Presidents and the Crisis of Leadership." Ken Walsh can be reached at kwalsh@usnews.com and followed on Facebook and Twitter.