Editorials

Senate hard-liners stand in way of NSA reform

National Security Agency director Mike Rogers speaks at Stanford University last November. A bill to limit the NSA’s phone surveillance program passed the House.
National Security Agency director Mike Rogers speaks at Stanford University last November. A bill to limit the NSA’s phone surveillance program passed the House. Associated Press file

An overwhelming and rare bipartisan majority in the U.S. House voted Wednesday to limit the National Security Agency’s sweeping surveillance of nearly all Americans’ phone calls.

A federal appeals court ruled last week that the NSA’s “bulk collection” of phone records is illegal. A presidential advisory panel said the program threatens civil liberties and offers “minimal value” in protecting us from terrorism.

What is it going to take for Senate Republicans, led by Mitch McConnell, to see the light?

GOP House Speaker John Boehner and the White House support the USA Freedom Act, which was introduced by the primary authors of the Patriot Act, the anti-terror legislation passed after the 9/11 attacks. So do many civil liberties groups and technology companies, including Apple, Facebook and Google.

But a relatively small number of hard-liners are standing in the way. They want to reauthorize the Patriot Act through 2020 without any major changes.

McConnell, who blocked a similar NSA reform bill last November, is trying to scare Americans concerned about the rise of the Islamic State. So is Republican Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina, who replaced Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California (who backs the bill) as head of the Intelligence Committee. Burr sent a statement after the 338-88 House vote, warning that it “undercuts the Intelligence Community’s capability to stop terrorist attacks here and abroad.”

Congress is facing a deadline to act of June 1, the expiration date of Section 215 of the Patriot Act – the provision that permits the NSA phone dragnet. In the ruling last week, federal Judge Gerard Lynch said that Congress needs to either provide the proper authority for the program, change it substantially or let it expire.

Americans were shocked to learn from documents leaked by Edward Snowden how much domestic spying has been going on. The NSA scoops up and stores millions of phone records – the numbers dialed and received and the length of calls, though not actual conversations – without a warrant or even suspicion regarding a specific caller.

The bill now before the Senate would require the NSA to get a court order before it could search phone records. It would have to persuade the secret court that oversees domestic spying that there is a “reasonable” suspicion that a specific term – such as a phone number – was linked to international terrorism. Phone companies, not the NSA, would keep the records for at least 18 months, giving the agency plenty of time to seek the records. The measure would also require the national intelligence director to release summaries of significant decisions by the secret court.

It’s the least that Congress should do to rein in a spy agency run amok.

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