For Freedom's Sake
On Tuesday Senator Pat Leahy introduced the USA Freedom Act. It would dramatically curtail the National Security Agency's dragnet domestic surveillance programs by creating privacy advocates in the FISA Courts, requiring transparency of the secret court's decisions, and obligating the government to justify the collection of Americans' communications before doing so.
A companion bill was introduced in the House by Wisconsin Representative Jim Sensenbrenner (R). The House bill is particularly notable in that Sensenbrenner is credited with authoring the Patriot Act which, in the wake of September 11, expanded government's surveillance power in the first place.
Together on Tuesdays, Leahy and Sensenbrenner said, "The dragnet collection of millions of Americans' phone records every day - whether they have any connection at all to terrorism - goes far beyond what Congress envisioned or intended to authorize it must stop.
"Over the past five months, we have seen a slow trickle of additional disclosures that have only added to our concerns. Since the revelation that the National Security Agency is collecting the details of Americans' phone calls on an unprecedented scale, it has come out that the government searches the content of huge troves of emails, collects in bulk the address books from email accounts and social networking sites, at least temporarily collected geolocation data from our cellphones, committed thousands of privacy violations and made substantial misrepresentations to courts and Congress.
"Not only do many of these programs raise serious legal questions, they have come at a high cost to Americans' privacy rights, business interests and standing in the international community. It is time for a new approach."
By Wednesday the legislation had 16 Senate co-sponsors and 70 in the House - many of whom voted against an effort this spring to defund parts of the NSA (brought by Justin Amash, R-Mich., and John Conyers, D-Mich.). That amendment was narrowly defeated, 217-205, after furious last-minute lobbying from President Obama and the intelligence community.
Public outrage has only grown since then, as Americans learned more about the shocking, unprecedented invasions of their privacy by their government. The Freedom Act is a critical first step to reign in the unchecked, unconstitutional excesses of our government. It would also become the most meaningful and impressive legacy of Leahy's political career