Five months after Americans learned that information about their telephone calls was being indiscriminately scooped up by the
But there is a world of difference between the legislation approved by the
Obama administration officials insist that the metadata program is vital because it assembles a "haystack" that makes it possible for a computer search to extract the "needle" of evidence leading to the perpetrators of a terrorist plot. The government persuaded the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court that such a dragnet was legal under a section of the Patriot Act authorizing the acquisition of records reasonably believed to be "relevant to an authorized investigation" of espionage or terrorism. (The FISA court also noted that the Supreme Court has afforded no privacy protection to information, such as phone records, that individuals turn over to "third parties" such as phone companies — an interpretation of the 4th Amendment that has been rendered obsolete by advances in electronic information-gathering.)
It's easy, amid the legal and technical complexities, to lose sight of the question at the heart of this debate: whether the government should be able, without a showing of probable cause of a connection to terrorism, to obtain and store information that can often provide as wide a window on the private lives of Americans as the actual contents of phone calls.
Feinstein and other defenders of the program emphasize that the database is searched or "queried" only when there is "reasonable, articulable" suspicion of a connection to terrorism. The Intelligence Committee bill would further discourage abuse by mandating an annual public accounting of the number of queries and limiting the number of people at the NSA who may authorize them.
But the mere possession of such information by the government is unsettling, and there is no guarantee that some employees with access to private information won't betray their trust. On the other side of the ledger, claims that the metadata program led to the disruption of a significant number of terrorist attacks seem to have been greatly exaggerated.