Our Opinion: A good first step


The U.S.government has a long way to go to restore trust following the revelation of massive spying on Americans citizens by the National Security Agency. However, an important step in the right direction was made Tuesday when U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., introduced legislation that he says would end the government's dragnet collection of phone records and require greater oversight, transparency, and accountability with respect to domestic surveillance authorities.

According to Leahy, the updated version of the USA Freedom Act builds on legislation passed in the House in May, as well as the original legislation he introduced with Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., last October. The legislation bans bulk collection under Section 215 of the USA Patriot Act and other surveillance authorities, requires the government to narrow the scope of a search to a clearly defined "specific selection term," adds needed transparency and reporting requirements, and provides key reforms to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.

"If enacted, this bill would represent the most significant reform of government surveillance authorities since Congress passed the USA Patriot Act 13 years ago," Leahy said in a floor statement.

"That was easy for this hard-left Democrat to say, as there has been no reform of the unconstitutional Patriot Act since it was passed," contributing writer Bob Adelmann wrote in The New American.

Adelmann called Leahy's bill "weak" and said "it's scarcely an improvement" over the House version. He said government will still be able to collect phone data on Americans, pending a judge's individualized order based on "reasonable articulable suspicion" of wrongdoing.

"This is a far cry from the 'probable cause' requirement demanded in the Fourth Amendment, but that's only the beginning," he wrote.

He points out that the bill purports to modify Section 715 of the Patriot Act while saying nothing about Section 702, which allows worldwide surveillance by the NSA. He also said the bill allows for the continuous collection of American's telephone records, and "most grievously," extends the Patriot Act until December 2017.

Others acknowledge the bill's shortcomings -- including Leahy himself -- but the general consensus is that at least it's a step in the right direction.

"While this bill is not perfect, it is the beginning of the real NSA reform that the public has been craving since the Patriot Act became law in 2001," Laura Murphy, director of the Washington Legislative Office of American Civil Liberties Union, said in a statement. "The Senate bill is an improvement over the version passed by the House, but problems remain. It is important that the public understand that there is much more work to be done to narrow the government's overbroad surveillance authorities to bring them in line with our Constitution and values."

She said this includes NSA's use of Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act to scoop up vast quantities of e-mails, phone calls, text messages and other international communication of individuals suspected of no wrongdoing, and then search them without a warrant.

Elizabeth Goitein, co-director of the Liberty and National Security Program at the Brennan Center for Justice, agrees: "It's a much stronger, more privacy-oriented bill than what the House passed two months ago. But it would not be a cure-all. The bulk collection program is the tip of a massive iceberg. Until Congress addresses the collection and use of Americans' calls and e-mails that supposedly target foreigners, the privacy of all of our communications is at risk."

In a letter to Congressional leadership, OpenTheGovernment.org called the bill "a true compromise and a crucial step in the right direction."

However, the organization says Leahy's bill does not fully restore the provisions that the House bill omitted, or take all the steps needed to restore democratic accountability to NSA surveillance. For example, at the intelligence community's apparent insistence, there are some loopholes in the reporting requirements, and the bill also does not guarantee public access to decisions of the FISA Court.

"For those reasons, we believe this version of the USA Freedom Act is a beginning, not an ending, to the necessary transparency reforms," OpenTheGovernment.org wrote.

The ACLU's Murphy was optimistic that these additional reforms will be instituted in the future as long as privacy advocates stay the course. She said history has shown that it sometimes takes years to effect positive change.

"It's exceedingly rare that a maximalist strategy on any issue -- from reproductive freedom and LGBT rights to immigration reform and pay equity -- succeeds in creating immediate, dramatic change. To give just one example, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, often and rightly seen as the watershed in the movement, wouldn't have passed Congress without the groundwork laid by the weaker civil rights acts of 1957 and 1960," Murphy notes.

As she said, "This is a marathon, not a sprint, and we have miles left to go."


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