Congress must end mass NSA surveillance with next Patriot Act vote
by Trevor Timm, The Guardian
Wednesday 8 April 2015 12.01 EDT
Despite doing almost everything in their power to avoid voting for substantive NSA reform, Congress now has no choice: On 1 June, one of the most controversial parts of the Patriot Act – known as Section 215 – will expire unless both houses of Congress affirmatively vote for it to be reauthorized.
While the government claims that its other uses of Section 215 are “critical” to national security, it’s extremely hard to take their word for it. After all, the government lied about collecting information on millions of Americans under Section 215 to begin with. Then they claimed the phone surveillance program was “critical” to national security after it was exposed. That wasn’t true either: they later had to admit it has never stopped a single terrorist attack.
We also just learned two weeks ago that the NSA knew the program was largely pointless before the Snowden leaks and debated shutting it down altogether. Suddenly, after the Snowden documents became public, NSA officials defended it as “critical” again when they had to go before an increasingly skeptical Congress.
Whatever else they’re doing with Section 215 behind closed doors, the phone surveillance program is illegal. As the author of the Patriot Act, Republican Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner has said: “I can say that without qualification that Congress never did intend to allow bulk collection when it passed Section 215, and no fair reading of the text would allow for this [mass phone surveillance] program”.
It’s also likely unconstitutional, as the first federal judge to look at the program ruled almost a year ago. Judge Richard Leon wrote at the time in his landmark opinion: “I cannot imagine a more ‘indiscriminate’ and ‘arbitrary invasion’ than this systematic and high-tech collection and retention of personal data on virtually every citizen for purposes of querying and analyzing it without prior judicial approval”.
These days, Congress can barely get post office names passed, let alone comprehensive reform on any subject affecting the American people. So the fact that they haven’t passed NSA reform yet says more about their near-total dysfunction than the American public’s views about privacy.
But now they have no choice. A year and a half ago, the House came within a few votes of cutting off funding for Section 215 in an unorthodox appropriations vote and, since then, opposition to the NSA’s massive spying operation on Americans has remained strong.
Only time will tell if Congress will actually receive this message. But if citizens call their representatives, they might just get it. Then, come June, the NSA will have a lot less of our private data at their fingertips.