Almost a year and a half after Edward Snowden revealed that the government was collecting the telephone records of millions of Americans, Congress may be about to end that program — if it doesn’t succumb to specious arguments from defenders of the status quo.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is proposing that the chamber take up the grandiosely titled USA Freedom Act introduced by Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), outgoing chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and supported by both the Obama administration and many (though not all) privacy advocates. The bill would end the bulk collection of so-called telephone metadata — information about the source, destination and duration of calls — that federal investigators have been able to obtain under an elastic interpretation of the Patriot Act. The data are “queried,” or searched, to turn up relationships between telephone customers and suspected terrorists.
Americans were understandably alarmed to learn that the government was in possession of a vast repository of information that could potentially illuminate myriad aspects of their daily lives. After initially dismissing concerns about the program with the blithe assurance that “nobody is listening to your telephone calls,” President Obama embraced the recommendation of an advisory panel that bulk collection be ended, and ordered that investigators seek a court order when they want to query the phone data.
But in the meantime the government has continued its metadata collection. That would end with enactment of the Leahy bill, which is significantly more protective of privacy than a similar measure passed by the House in May. If the Senate acts during the current lame-duck session, the House could quickly concur. The legislation is backed not only by prominent Democrats — though not, so far, by Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) — but also by Republican Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Mike Lee of Utah. The metadata outrage has been bipartisan.
But there is a potential complication: Some opponents of the bill maintain that the emergence of Islamic State in Syria and Iraq makes it unwise to impose any new restrictions on surveillance of potential terrorist activity. Obama’s own advisory panel, however, concluded that information obtained from the metadata program “was not essential to preventing attacks” and could have been acquired by other means. To the extent that searches of metadata do enhance U.S. intelligence, they can still be conducted under the Leahy bill — but with privacy safeguards written into the law.
Senators — including Feinstein — should approve the bill and send it to the House before the 113th Congress passes into history.
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