Opinion Columns & Blogs

Editorial: President, Congress should care as much about our privacy as foreign leaders’

If this is what it takes for our leaders to finally reform the out-of-control National Security Agency, so be it.

Still, it’s disgraceful that apparent eavesdropping on the leaders of U.S. allies is raising more concern in some quarters than the daily monitoring of millions of Americans.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, has been one of the staunchest defenders of the NSA’s surveillance programs. Now all of a sudden, she says it’s “abundantly clear that a total review of all intelligence programs is necessary.”

Actually, that has been “abundantly clear” well before press reports broke last week that the NSA had been tapping the phones of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and 30-some other world leaders.

Barring an “emergency need,” Feinstein said she is “totally opposed” to “collecting phone calls or emails of friendly presidents and prime ministers.” In her statement Monday, she also claimed her committee was never fully informed.

President Barack Obama, meanwhile, reportedly may order the NSA to stop the practice. He is in a no-win situation. If he authorized the spying on allies, he will have some fence mending to do. If, as the administration is suggesting, he didn’t know about the surveillance on Merkel and others, that raises serious questions about his stewardship of national security.

Sure, some complaining by foreign leaders is for show. They can’t be that shocked that their communications are being monitored. Yet, if this controversy damages the crucial cooperation between U.S. and European intelligence agencies, that’s not good for anyone.

Top U.S. intelligence officials told Congress on Tuesday that surveillance of foreign leaders is a “fundamental given” and that allies spy on U.S. leaders. They also strongly denied reports that the NSA had collected data on tens of millions of phone calls made by Europeans.

While acknowledging some mistakes, the intelligence officials vigorously defended the domestic surveillance programs as well, saying that they are thwarting terrorists and not spying unlawfully on Americans. NSA Director Keith Alexander said that of the billions of records collected last year, only 288 were actually reviewed.

After all the revelations, however, those reassurances ring hollow. Congress needs to act to make sure the NSA doesn’t abuse its powers.

In a significant step Tuesday, a major bipartisan reform bill was introduced by two key lawmakers – Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, and House terrorism subcommittee Chairman James Sensenbrenner, a Wisconsin Republican. After the 9/11 attacks, they were the primary authors of the USA Patriot Act, which authorized some of the sweeping surveillance.

Their USA Freedom Act would end the bulk collection of Americans’ phone records, allowing the government to only seek records related to ongoing terrorism investigations. “It is not enough to just make minor tweaks around the edges,” Leahy and Sensenbrenner wrote in Politico. “It is time for real, substantive reform.”

They’re absolutely right. Lawmakers must prove that they care as much about our privacy as the privacy of foreign leaders.