Opinion

The Great Debate

Senate must rein in the NSA

An illustration picture shows the logo of the U.S. National Security Agency on the display of an iPhone in Berlin

The House of Representatives seemed poised last month to rein in the government’s ability to spy on its citizens by prohibiting the bulk collection of Americans’ telephone records. On the eve of the vote, however, the Obama administration and House leadership intervened. In secret negotiations, they took a carving knife to the bill, removing key privacy protections.

It is now up to the Senate to breathe life back into this National Security Agency reform effort. The Senate Judiciary Committee is expected to take up the bill, known as the USA Freedom Act, this month. Panel members must hold firm on ending the bulk collection program and restoring limits on the NSA’s ever-expanding surveillance activities.

The laws that Congress passed after 9/11 sought to aid intelligence gathering against foreign terrorist threats. They have now morphed, however, into tools for the mass collection of information about U.S. citizens as well as foreigners.

An Aerial view of the National Security Agency in Fort MeadeUnder a provision of the Patriot Act that allows the FBI to obtain items “relevant” to an international terrorism investigation, the NSA for years has been collecting records of virtually every landline-based phone call that Americans make or receive.

The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court secretly approved this action. Though the court prohibited the NSA from searching the records without reasonable suspicion of a terrorist link, declassified court opinions exposed the NSA’s shoddy record of compliance.

NSA: Listening to everyone — except oversight

ILLUSTRATION: Matt Mahurin

For 35 years the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court has been the judicial equivalent of a stellar black hole — everything goes in but nothing is allowed to escape.

Last week, however, for the first time since its creation, the Obama administration declassified and made public large portions of an 85-page top-secret ruling by the court that had been the subject of a Freedom of Information lawsuit by the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

The surveillance court was created in 1978, designed to act as a safeguard to protect the public from the National Security Agency’s ever-expanding eavesdropping capabilities, and its long history of widespread illegal spying. For three decades leading up to 1975, for example, the agency had been secretly reading, without a warrant, millions of telegrams to and from Americans as they passed over the wires of Western Union and other telegraph companies — the Internet of the day. That was supposed to come to a halt with the creation of the court.

  •