Editorial: Is Congress set to keep NSA on a tighter leash?

Published: Tuesday, Jul. 30, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 8A
Last Modified: Tuesday, Jul. 30, 2013 - 10:54 am

Better late than never, Congress is engaging in stronger oversight of the vast secret surveillance that has mushroomed since 9/11.

The House sent a clear message by coming within a handful of votes last week of defunding the National Security Agency's program that scoops up domestic phone records. An unusual bipartisan coalition – concerned about privacy and Obama administration stonewalling – supported the provision, which would have prevented the NSA from collecting phone data unless an individual is under investigation.

The White House had to put on a full-court press to win the 217-205 vote, issuing dire warnings that the proposal would dismantle a crucial intelligence tool and make America less safe against terrorism. It pledged, however, to cooperate in a "reasoned review" of the sweeping surveillance programs spotlighted by NSA leaker Edward Snowden.

Momentum appears to be on the side of those who want to rein in the government's dragnet. On Friday, House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi of California sent President Barack Obama a letter warning that even those like her who opposed the amendment were looking at changes. The letter was signed by 153 other House Democrats, including 30 from California, Sacramento-area Reps. Ami Bera and Doris Matsui among them.

The letter raises some of the right issues that need to be addressed. The Democrats ask whether the metadata telecommunications program could be narrowed to better protect Americans' civil liberties. The NSA collects and stores phone records on millions of Americans every day – who they call, when and where from. To get more information, such as the content of conversations, it must get authorization for specific individuals.

The Democrats also say the super-secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court needs more transparency and independence. As we said last month, the court has become too much of a rubber stamp for the government's snooping demands. Legislation in both the House and Senate would require the attorney general to make the court's significant decisions public, or at least disclose an unclassified summary. Some are suggesting that the Senate have confirmation power over judges on the court, who are now picked by the chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.

Until now, the House and Senate intelligence committees have most closely monitored the surveillance programs. It's worth noting that those committees' leaders, including Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, have been steadfast defenders of the NSA. Yet, it's also worth asking whether they have become too willing to accept government reassurances on privacy.

It's a healthy development that a wider cross-section of Congress is trying to make sure that the government is striking the right balance between national security and personal freedom.

More involvement isn't enough, however. To make a real difference, Congress must push the administration to enact reforms.

The close House vote encouraged Sen. Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat who until recently had been a lonely voice in Congress warning that sweeping surveillance could soon become irreversible.

Now, he is pushing ahead with proposals to limit the scope of electronic spying. On the House side, California Rep. Zoe Lofgren of San Jose is helping lead on similar bipartisan legislation.

"If we do not seize this unique moment in our constitutional history to reform our surveillance laws and practices," Wyden correctly told a Washington think tank last week, "we will live to regret it."

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