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.
Under 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.