Its about time! The House on Thursday, May 22, voted overwhelmingly to rein in the National Security Agency’s sweeping collection of telephone records, approving scaled-back legislation that sharply divided the technology sector and civil libertarians, but united the White House, conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats. It’s about time!
The 303-121 vote sent an unambiguous signal that both parties are no longer comfortable with giving the N.S.A. unfettered power to collect bulk surveillance data. A year ago, a divided House nearly voted to strip all money from the N.S.A. for such surveillance, over the
protests of the Republican leadership.
With anger over the leaks from Edward J. Snowden cooling, House Republicans and Democrats and the White House were able to work out a compromise that fully satisfied few but did advance a push to limit the surveillance efforts of the era ushered in by the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
“People are a lot more comfortable with a government that is not storing all this metadata,” said Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio, praising a bill that he said “makes it clear there will be no access to this data without a court decision and the standards for that decision are higher than they were.”
But in the last days before the vote, intelligence and Obama administration officials watered down the original bill by the Judiciary and Intelligence Committees, turning many technology companies and advocates against it. It figures!
“If House leaders had backed up their members and stood behind the bill that passed unanimously out of two committees, rather than caving to the intelligence community’s list of demands, a much stronger reform bill would have passed the House this morning,” said Kevin Bankston, the policy director at the Open Technology Institute, a technology advocacy group. “This is not the surveillance reform that Americans deserve and have demanded.”
But civil libertarians pleaded for patience as the political world moves toward more stringent controls. “While far from perfect, this bill is an unambiguous statement of congressional intent to rein in the out-of-control N.S.A. While we share the concerns of many — including members of both parties who rightly believe the bill does not go far enough — without it we would be left with no reform at all,” said Laura W. Murphy, the director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Washington legislative office. One step at a time.
At least it is a good start. I would rather have 20 percent of something instead of 100 percent of nothing.
Civil liberties groups said the changes left the door open for the government to obtain enormous volumes of records. The bill’s centerpiece focuses on the power of the Foreign
Intelligence Surveillance Court to issue orders allowing the government to obtain business records deemed relevant to a national security investigation.
The court secretly interpreted that provision as allowing the N.S.A. to systematically collect calling records for the purpose of hunting for hidden associates of terrorism suspects. The bill instead would allow the agency to obtain only the calling records of people up to two links from a suspect, a change President Obama has endorsed.
The bill also seeks to limit bulk collection more broadly by saying that such court orders — as well as administrative subpoenas for records, known as national security letters — may be used only to obtain records associated with a “specific selection term.”
So now maybe Big Brother needs to pull his omnipresent paws back a bit.
Mace J. Yampolsky is a Board Certified Criminal Law Specialist, 625 South Sixth St., Las Vegas, NV 89101; He can be reached at: Phone 702-385-9777 or fax 702-385-300. His website is located at: www.macelaw.com.