To hear U.S. Rep. Ted Poe, R-Texas, tell it, NSA stands for “No Strings Attached” when it comes to the way the federal agency sweeps up and examines the most private data of American citizens.
Poe raised the issue, with some emotion, on Tuesday during the House committee hearing held to question U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions. How the National Security Agency can so casually root around in the personal data of Americans who have done no wrong was beyond him.
Not that Sessions could see the problem.
“You don’t think probable cause and a warrant is required to go into that information?” Poe asked.
Sessions all but shrugged. Federal courts have held that the NSA has that right, the attorney general replied, adding “I agree with the courts, not you, congressman.”
But Poe is right and Sessions is wrong. And may we note that both Poe and Sessions are Republicans and, more often than not, supporters of Donald Trump.
This is not a partisan issue. This is an American liberties issue.
Poe’s comments came Tuesday as Congress considers whether to permit the NSA to continue eavesdropping on electronic communications of foreigners outside the United States. Such eavesdropping can sweep up phone calls, emails or other communications by innocent American citizens who communicate with foreigners, even if the citizens have no connections to spying or terrorism. The law allowing the eavesdropping expires at the end of the year.
Unfortunately, as usually happens when it’s time to discuss this important privacy and security issue, Congress is wrapped up in something else. This time, tax cuts for wealthy people are monopolizing Congress’ attention. Little time remains before the end of the year for thoughtful hearings and debate on the appropriate level of surveillance in a free society and what the nature and scope of the NSA’s program should be.
That’s dismaying, especially at a time when President Donald Trump is expressing interest in using the investigative powers of the government to pursue a former political opponent, Hillary Clinton. It is easy to see how the fruits of excessive government spying could be horribly misused.
The nine-year-old law in question — Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act — was intended to give the NSA a way to detect and deter terrorist plots. That remains important. It’s one of the most direct ways to protect an open society.
But it’s also important that the privacy and individual security at the foundation of that open society be respected and protected. Careful measures should be put in place to properly limit which communications of individual Americans can be viewed by domestic law enforcement agencies, something Congress hasn’t included in its reauthorization bills.
Under the current law, the FBI is permitted to sift through the NSA database for evidence of Americans committing crimes. That’s a mistake. The FBI should be required to get a warrant from a judge and show probable cause that a crime has been committed. A Senate committee has rejected an effort by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-California, and Sen. Kamala Harris, D-California, to write such a protection into the reauthorization bill, but the full Senate should reconsider that before it takes a final vote.
In the House, House Judiciary Committee leaders are supporting some new limitations on surveillance, including the requirement of a warrant.
The NSA is understood to sweep up billions of emails, calls, texts and other communications every single day. That undoubtedly includes many communications by ordinary Americans who never suspect their words can be examined by the government.
The walls between domestic law enforcement and foreign intelligence were breached after 9/11, and FBI Director Christopher Wray argues that writing protections back into the law would be dangerous to the American public. That ignores the perils of creating an under-regulated dossier on Americans.
Information gathered by the NSA is subject to potential abuse not just by government but, also by anyone who gains access to it. Unknown hackers already have stolen the NSA’s powerful cyber weapons and used them against hapless computer users worldwide. It’s not hard to envision how the communications of innocent Americans that were swept up by the NSA could be hacked in the same manner, or that they already have been.
The Trump administration — no friend of citizens’ privacy — is pushing for a permanent authorization of the law. That would be an error, not only because of the lack of thorough debate, but also because rapidly advancing technology will change the surveillance capabilities of the government.
At Tuesday’s hearing, Rep. Poe said, “It is the responsibility of Congress to set the privacy standard for Americans.”
He’s right. It’s time for Congress to do its job.
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