After a 2008 presidential campaign that criticized the Bush administration for increased government surveillance and lack of government transparency with the Patriot Act, the Obama administration has since expanded those very things it sought to diminish.
Michael Hayden, former director of the U.S. National Security Agency, indicated last year that most surveillance programs initiated after Sept. 11, 2001, have expanded every year since President Barack Obama has taken office.
The very fact that the NSA has the capability to keep track of calls that U.S. citizens make and to whom, the length and the date, is disconcerting. Even more disconcerting is the lack of transparency: The fact that metadata collected from phone calls and Web use is stored, and that the number of individuals and what kind of information is kept and on whom is kept secret. It displaces any trust citizens have with their government; If it doesn’t, it should.
The USA Freedom Act, landmark legislation championed by U.S. Sen. (D-Vt.) and Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy in October 2013, sought to at least end the automatic bulk collection of phone records. That bill was introduced into the House of Representatives by Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), and had very strong intent on limiting the powers of the NSA and the Department of Homeland Security.
The House passed a diluted version of the bill in May, diminishing the privacy protections in the bill so that it would gain approval of more Republicans, who were concerned that it might limit the government’s intelligence-gathering abilities. Many were also concerned that increased transparency might compromise the operations of counter-terrorism efforts.
The House version contained vague language about how the NSA could gather and store information. Originally supported by privacy advocates such as the Center for Democracy and Technology, the changes caused many to withdraw their support.
Leahy made a statement following the House’s passage, that the revised bill does successfully balance privacy and transparency with the need for law enforcement and intelligence agencies to keep track of national security threats. It seemed as if compromise was important to ensure passage.
Leahy introduced an again revised Senate version of the bill on Tuesday: The Freedom Act of 2014. That version has entailed more oversight, transparency and privacy requirements, specifically targeted to the NSA’s collection of phone and Internet records.
This version of the bill would forbid authorities from collecting information about any particular service provider or geographical data from those providers’ customers.
What’s unfortunate is that although the House’s summer recess was delayed, the Senate went on recess Friday, making it unlikely that the Senate will pick this bill up again in September because members of Congress will be focusing on elections.
We urge you to call and email your senators’ state offices while they are on recess, demanding that they see the bill to the Senate floor this fall. This legislation is so critical for the rights of U.S. citizens that it is in everyone’s best interest to do so.
"The government cannot just walk into your house and rifle through your drawers, filing cabinets and your cupboards to find out what you have there without due law and search warrants," said Leahy when first introducing the bill to Obama and the House. "That’s not how we keep data anymore: It’s on computers. On the same token, they shouldn’t have the right to do it there either."
While "privacy" is not guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution, it is not thwarted either. The framers of the constitution were concerned for the privacy of beliefs, secured by the first amendment; the privacy from quartering of soldiers on private property, secured by the third amendment; the privacy against unreasonable search or seizure, secured by the fourth amendment; and finally, the privilege against self-incrimination, secured by the fifth amendment.
If the framers of the constitution had any idea of what media might one day become, privacy from searches of phone and Web records might certainly have served as an extension of the third amendment, requiring warrant as well.
The Freedom Act would do just that; It would permit the government to collect call and Web detail from a surveillance target to people contacted by another surveillance target, if and only if that intelligence agency can demonstrate that a search term is associated with a foreign terrorist organization.
Again, we urge you to contact your senators as frequently as possible to ensure the bill makes it to the senate floor this fall. Don’t let them forget about it over recess. Don’t let them think that their campaigns are more important than the interests of their constituents.