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Editorial: Congress must get serious about limiting domestic spying

At this point, the only question should be how far Congress goes to rein in domestic spying, not whether it does anything at all.

As revelation after revelation has made clear, the National Security Agency has expanded its collection of phone and Internet records far beyond what many Americans knew or support.

Several thousand people are expected to gather today near the U.S. Capitol in the largest protest so far to denounce the government dragnet. They will present petitions with more than 580,000 signatures demanding that Congress end the blanket surveillance. The “Stop Watching Us” rally is timed for the 12th anniversary of when then-President George W. Bush signed the USA Patriot Act, which allowed much of the secret snooping.

In the nearly five months since former NSA contractor Edward Snowden blew the whistle, Congress has held hearings, where government officials sought to reassure us. But it has taken very little constructive action.

Contrast that with Europe. On Monday, a European Parliament committee approved sweeping rules to strengthen online privacy and to outlaw the sorts of data transfers used by U.S. intelligence agencies. Last week, British parliamentarians pledged to hear directly from the public as they consider whether to update privacy laws.

These days, Europeans are hopping mad about reports that the U.S. eavesdropped on their leaders, some of our staunchest allies. After allegations that her cellphone has been monitored, German Chancellor Angela Merkel complained directly to President Barack Obama. “Spying among friends is simply not done,” she said Thursday at a European Union summit.

Germany and France are pushing for a new code of conduct for U.S. intelligence agencies in Europe. Some EU leaders said that trust had been broken and warned that if it wasn’t repaired, it could jeopardize cooperation in the fight against terrorism.

Because the 9/11 attacks happened here, it’s understandable why many Americans believe such widespread monitoring is required to stop the terrorists.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, is leading the “never again” crowd in Congress who say while the NSA surveillance needs some tweaks, it is legal and necessary. “To destroy it is to make this nation more vulnerable,” she said at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing this month.

Such dire warnings, however, shouldn’t end the debate. Rather, Congress and the Obama administration must agree on real reform that protects us from terrorism and protects us from unnecessary intrusions into our daily communications – and then clearly explain the trade-offs to the public.

Feinstein is working on a modest bill to make the NSA programs more transparent, strengthen oversight by Congress and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court and add some privacy safeguards. For instance, she wants to limit access to bulk phone data to cases of “reasonable suspicion” and to expressly prohibit collection of the content of phone calls. The intelligence committee plans to work on a bill next week, her office says.

The Senate Judiciary Committee is also considering legislation. Among the bills before it:


S. 1467

would add a “special advocate” to argue for individual rights before the intelligence court, which now hears only from the government, and would require more public disclosure of its decisions.


S. 1551

would go further. Besides the changes to the intelligence court, it would end bulk collection of Americans’ phone calls and limit the surveillance of online data.

While unlikely to pass, the most far-reaching bill is in the House. H.R. 2818 would halt much of the domestic snooping by repealing the Patriot Act and the 2008 law that allows online data collection. It would also require a probable cause warrant to collect information on Americans.

Nearly 20 other bills, mostly with more piecemeal changes, have been introduced. There are plenty of ideas to sift through to come up with a smart, comprehensive reform. What is Congress waiting for?