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Frank Pignanelli & LaVarr Webb: Should Utahns be worried about NSA monitoring?

Published: Saturday, Aug. 29 2015 9:52 p.m. MDT

This Thursday, June 6, 2013 file photo shows the National Security Administration (NSA) campus in Fort Meade, Md.  (Patrick Semansky, AP) This Thursday, June 6, 2013 file photo shows the National Security Administration (NSA) campus in Fort Meade, Md. (Patrick Semansky, AP)

Although summer doesn't arrive until June 21, we are certainly experiencing a heat wave — both in the temperature outside and also in the machinations and consternations of political wrangling in our state.

Once again, Utah is receiving global media attention — this time about the new NSA facility in Bluffdale. Should Utahns be worried the federal government storing records of their telephone and Internet activities?

Pignanelli: "Relying on the government to protect your privacy is like asking a Peeping Tom to install your window blinds."— John Perry Barlow

Two decades ago, my wife and I grew suspicious that political enemies were tapping our phone lines. A private detective determined we were the subjects of intense monitoring, but not by political opponents. A federal agency was snooping. He then stated, "Someone in your house is calling Baghdad weekly mentioning words like bombs, explosions, mosques, etc. The cloak-and-dagger crowd is very interested in you." I then realized my wife's Iraqi cousin — who was living with us — was calling her Muslim relatives living in a home damaged by an errant missile in the first Iraq War. (Of course, my Italian temper was in fifth gear when discussing this revelation with my wife.)

I grudgingly understand why national security entities eavesdropped on these innocent conversations. But every Utahn should be uncomfortable with all monitoring — regardless of the rationale — and expect safeguards in place to ensure that any spying on personal discussions is specific in nature and subject to judicial scrutiny. UtahSen. Mike Lee's, demand to open proceedings of the FISA court (which approves wiretap requests) is an excellent move. Americans should be equally concerned that young malcontents (like the NSA leaker) have security clearance and access to our private records.

Webb: This is a truly dumb issue to get worked up over. Who has been hurt by the NSA? Where are the victims? It has been vastly overblown and once again illustrates the truth that Congress can only do two things: nothing and overreact. Almost all Americans voluntarily reveal vast amounts of information about themselves by surfing the Web, posting on Facebook and Twitter, using location services on their smartphones, using credit cards and on and on. We'd all be amazed at the data being collected about us by any number of entities.

Every day, thousands of people are violated by unscrupulous marketers using data they've collected. Let's get upset about that, not about the Defense Department scanning data to protect us from being murdered by terrorists. Personally, I'm glad the good guys are protecting America using every means possible to detect the bad guys.

President Barack Obama is hypocritical on this issue, because this is precisely what he used to complain about as a civil libertarian community organizer and U.S. senator. But at least he grew up, got real, and now understands we need to protect America. He's now right on the issue, unlike the black helicopter fear-mongers on the far left and the far right, and some members of Congress.

Let's get real, folks. If you want to worry, then worry about something that's at least remotely likely to hurt you: like being hit by lightning, falling down stairs, drowning in the bathtub. There's plenty to worry about. But the NSA isn't one of them.

The national immigration debate is fostering interesting dynamics. Utah's business community and media leaders overwhelmingly support comprehensive reform legislation, but Utah's junior Sen. Mike Lee is adamantly opposed. What are the impacts on local politics?

Pignanelli: My firm represents many companies (from high technology to retail services) who respect Lee but are dumbfounded with his opposition to the "Gang of Eight" bill because the status quo is generating chaos for American businesses. Should the bill leave the Senate with divided support between Lee and Sen. Orrin Hatch, there will be external pressure and media attention on Utah's House delegation approximating the noise level of a general election year.

Webb: We Republicans love to complain, justifiably so, about the overreaching federal government sticking its nose into things it has no business in, like education and health care. Well, immigration policy is absolutely and unequivocally a federal responsibility, demanding a congressional solution. And yet, Congress has refused for decades to deal responsibly with this issue, leaving America in a gigantic mess. If our members of Congress can't be productive problem-solvers and take care of this festering sore, they ought to resign and let someone else try.

All forms of wagering are against the law in Utah. But if politicos could bet, what are the odds of Attorney General John Swallow resigning or the impeachment process beginning, in the next 30 days?

Pignanelli: House Republicans will deliberate this Wednesday with the knowledge that 80 percent of Utahns want Swallow to resign (survey conducted by prominent BYU pollsters Quinn Monson and Kelly Patterson). Afterward, legislative leaders will quietly offer Swallow an opportunity to depart with dignity. The attorney general resigns — or impeachment proceedings begin — by mid-July.

Webb: If you absolutely believe you are innocent of a charge, do you stay and fight, or give up? If you give up, what message does that send to your children and friends? I believe Swallow is convinced he did nothing wrong, and he wants to keep fighting for his name and honor. That makes sense — up to the point that it really hurts his office, his employees and the state of Utah. We're now at that point. He can continue to proclaim his innocence while agreeing to step away for the greater good. That's what he will do in the next several weeks.

Republican LaVarr Webb is a political consultant and lobbyist. Previously he was policy deputy to Gov. Mike Leavitt and Deseret News managing editor. Email: lwebb@exoro.com. Democrat Frank Pignanelli is a Salt Lake attorney, lobbyist and political adviser. Pignanelli served 10 years in the Utah House of Representatives, six years as minority leader. His spouse, D'Arcy Dixon Pignanelli, is a state tax commissioner. Email: frankp@xmission.com.

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