Cross-posted at USA Today.
Two years ago, Edward Snowden’s revelations about the National Security Agency’s mass surveillance of Americans led to public outcry and widespread demand for Congress to take action. Last week, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. answered the call — not with reforms, but with a bill to extend the NSA’s powers for another five years.
The bill, co-sponsored by Senate intelligence committee chair Richard Burr, R-N.C., would reauthorize until 2020 three provisions of the Patriot Act that are scheduled to expire on June 1. These provisions include Section 215, which the NSA has used to collect the phone records of nearly every American and store them in a vast database. Of all the surveillance activities Snowden revealed, this “bulk collection” program was the most explosive. A majority of Americans have called for limits on the NSA, and the coming expiration of Section 215 has been widely viewed as an opportunity for Congress to enact reform.
Reading the McConnell-Burr bill feels like entering a time warp; it is as if Snowden’s disclosures and the resulting calls for change never happened. The legislation fails to make even the smallest nod to Americans’ concerns. For instance, it could have paired the extension with provisions strengthening oversight or requiring more transparency. But the bill’s sponsors are not responding to what most Americans want, or even what the intelligence community wants. After all, the Director of National Intelligence sent a letter to Congress last year supporting legislation that would end bulk collection. Their sole interest appears to be political: to block a reform supported by the Obama administration and most Democrats.
There is no excuse for the NSA’s bulk collection program to continue another minute, let alone five years. The program treats every American like a suspected terrorist. It pulls in records that can be used to derive a wealth of information about the most personal and private aspects of our lives: religious beliefs, political activities, friendships, hobbies, sexual preferences, health issues and more. Such sensitive information about law-abiding Americans should be none of the government’s business.
This type of information also is highly susceptible to abuse by government officials. Defenders of the program say there has been no evidence of abuse. But what NSA officials are doing or not doing is not exactly an open book. It took the most rigorous congressional investigation in U.S. history, conducted by the Church Committee, to unearth decades of misconduct by the FBI, CIA and NSA. More to the point, those transgressions happened because there were no limits on collection, and the temptation to use the information for political ends proved irresistible. Human nature has not changed. The NSA’s phone records program dispenses with limits on collection; the abuses will follow.
McConnell and Burr will no doubt invoke the specter of ISIL, as they have in the past, to justify letting the NSA’s program continue. They might as well cite ISIL as a justification for repealing Obamacare. Two independent panels reviewed all the relevant classified information and concluded that bulk collection yielded little or no counterterrorism benefit. Countering the threat from ISIL with an ineffective program does nothing but divert resources from more productive means of intelligence gathering.
Fortunately, most members of Congress are not willing to pretend the past two years never happened. Last year, a large number of Republicans in the House joined with Democrats to pass provisions that would limit NSA surveillance. A bill to end bulk collection would have passed in the Senate as well, if McConnell hadn’t scraped together a last-minute filibuster. It is clear that a bipartisan majority of Congress recognizes the need for reform. McConnell and Burr are not just out of touch with the American people and the intelligence agencies; they are out of touch with the Congress.
The McConnell-Burr bill nonetheless threatens to turn the conversation away from reform and toward the issue of reauthorization. Congress cannot afford this distraction. With the expiration of the Patriot Act fast approaching, it is time to turn to the serious business of ending bulk collection. That is what Americans want — not more blank checks for the NSA to draw against our liberties.