Congressional negotiators are scrambling over the Memorial Day recess to rustle up the votes required to pass legislation to rein in the National Security Agency’s bulk collection of phone records but preserve the government’s domestic surveillance program. This race against the clock would never have become necessary — and shouldn’t have — but for a group of senators intent on scuttling sensible legislation authored by U.S. Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.).
Sensenbrenner’s USA Freedom Act would end the government’s massive eavesdropping program revealed two years ago by whistle-blower Edward Snowden. His bill overwhelmingly passed the House but fell three votes short of the 60 needed for passage last week in the Senate. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), whose hours-long monologue on Friday made passage impossible, wants to go farther: He has vowed to block reauthorization of the bill until the Senate votes to end the section of the Patriot Act used by the NSA to justify the dragnet of phone records.
But Paul, a presidential candidate who has used his filibustering to raise funds for his campaign, is wrong. The better course (though less lucrative for his campaign) would have been simple support for Sensenbrenner’s bill.
The USA Freedom Act represents a bare minimum in necessary reform. We wish it went further in restoring a balance between personal freedoms and national security. But if the Senate can’t pass even this bill, so be it — let the government’s program for collecting phone records in bulk come to an end. Let Section 215 of the Patriot Act expire.
Congress then could craft a new law, from scratch, that puts a premium on our liberties. It wouldn’t be easy, but it shouldn’t be easy.
We’re unclear why Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and others defend this provision of the Patriot Act so strongly to begin with. Just three weeks ago, a federal appeals court released a blistering opinion that Section 215 does not legitimately allow for the “sweeping surveillance” of phone records and other data in “staggering” volumes. And all that data collection, according to testimony and government reports, has never made the difference in thwarting a terrorist attack.
Congress is on course to create a vacuum of authority, in which the NSA would have no clear power to conduct any metadata collection, possibly indefinitely. Negotiators are said to be working on a deal that would tweak the legislation enough to placate Mr. McConnell (or allow him to save face) without alienating the House. One possible solution would be to extend slightly the House bill’s six-month transition period.
Whatever solution lawmakers embrace, it must preserve the painstakingly negotiated compromise embodied in the USA Freedom Act.
Source: BattleCreek Enquirer