It’s been more than a year since Americans found out just how ill-advised Congress was to impulsively pass the Patriot Act without proper vetting in the weeks following the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.
Not that many egregious abuses of civil rights hadn’t come to light in the dozen or so years the Patriot Act had been in place, but when former National Security Agency worker Edward Snowden revealed the extent of the agency’s spying on everyday citizens, it marked a new low in our expectation of what our government is capable of. Unfortunately, subsequent revelations have lowered that bar even farther.
It seemed obvious — in the wake of Snowden’s disclosure that the NSA was conducting massive collections of phone and Internet records for inclusion in databases without any real oversight — that Congress would step in and put a stop to such blatant misuse of the public’s trust.
Not so much.
After months of hearings in which House and Senate committees chastised intelligence officials and vowed to protect the privacy of Americans, not much has changed.
“Saying we need to change the rules and actually creating a mechanism that will effectively change the rules and allow Congress to monitor it is a completely different story,” retired CIA official John Sano told ABC News in October.
He was right; a House bill to put controls on the NSA’s spying was watered down extensively before passage. President Obama unveiled plans in January to curb some shady NSA practices, but they amounted to little more than tweaks to an extensive system of abuses.
Tuesday, Sen. Pat Leahy, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, put forth a bill that would end the NSA’s bulk collection and storage of phone records. It would require a court order to search the records of Internet and wireless providers; it would give tech firms the ability to disclose more about what requests for information the government has made; and it would add civil liberties advocates to the much-criticized court that approves intelligence operations.
It’s not a slam dunk that Leahy’s plan will pass. Some lawmakers have already called for even more-stringent checks on the NSA, while others have noted it may have a hard time passing on the heels of the House measure.
But it’s needed.
Putting aside for the moment the damage done to the country’s standing globally in the wake of Snowden’s various disclosures that the NSA has been spying on foreign leaders long considered allies, the damage done to our government’s reputation at home is considerable.
The metadata collection program, begun under George W. Bush and continued under the Obama administration, cannot possibly have achieved results that would justify the flagrant abuses and lies committed in the name of security. It should have been shut down, or at least curtailed, long ago.
We hope Leahy’s bill can do the trick. And if, along the way to passage, it’s strengthened to close any loophole through which the government can continue to conduct such warrantless searches, so much the better.