Anyone who cares about excessive snooping by the National Security Agency should be appalled that Senate Republicans blocked a first step to protect our privacy.
The USA Freedom Act fell two votes shy of the 60 needed Tuesday to move forward. It is the first significant legislation in response to Edward Snowden’s earth-shaking revelations last year that the NSA was routinely collecting mind-boggling volumes of information on our daily communications, including who we are calling.
The bill would have required the NSA to ask telecommunications companies for records linked to a specific person. Also, most records would stay in the possession of the phone companies, not be stored in the NSA’s vast data vaults. And it would require the government to disclose summaries of significant decisions by the secret court that is supposed to oversee domestic spying.
These limited steps are supported by the Obama administration and a coalition of technology companies – including California-based Google and Yahoo – as well as civil liberties groups.
The measure was introduced by the primary authors of USA Patriot Act, approved after the 9/11 terrorist attacks – not people who are soft on terrorism. It also had backing from Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, the outgoing chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee who has defended the NSA. In a statement, she said the measure “may have been the best opportunity” to improve transparency and protect privacy “while maintaining the government’s ability to use this tool to prevent terrorist attacks at home and abroad.”
Opponents, however, resorted to fear-mongering. Sen. Mitch McConnell, who will become majority leader in January, claimed that any restrictions would somehow let the Islamic State run wild. “This is the worst possible time to be tying our hands behind our backs,” he said before the vote.
The GOP-controlled House passed a version of the legislation in May, but it was so watered down that privacy advocates abandoned it. While there will be another debate when the section of the Patriot Act authorizing collection of phone records comes up for reauthorization next June, it seems unlikely the new Republican-majority Senate will make any major changes.
Unlike so many issues in Congress, this one isn’t completely divided on party lines. Republicans, as well as Democrats, who are concerned about civil liberties support stricter rules for the NSA.
Rep. Devin Nunes, a Republican from Visalia who voted for the House bill, was appointed Tuesday by House Speaker John Boehner to be chairman of the House Intelligence Committee in the next Congress. If Nunes wants to make an immediate mark, championing reasonable limits to surveillance of Americans would be a good start.
Privacy is fundamental to who we are as a nation and should be safeguarded, no matter the latest election results or terrorist threat.