Senate Showdown On NSA Surveillance Reform

By Patrick Leahy and Martha Reid

We are coming down to the wire today on a hard-fought effort to restore Americans’ privacy rights.  The nation’s libraries, often on the front lines as privacy issues are debated, once again are in the vanguard in advocating for a solution that protects Americans’ civil liberties.

Librarians and like-minded legislators in Washington have worked together for almost two years to ensure that the National Security Agency cannot engage in the bulk collection of Americans’ phone records and other personal records (including library records), to make the government more transparent and accountable to the Americans it serves.  The U.S. Senate will reconvene today -- Sunday afternoon -- to try to pass legislation to end the NSA’s dragnet surveillance tactics once and for all.

This is a critical moment for the libraries that play indispensable roles in the lives of Vermonters and our communities.  They are vital gathering places and serve as a critical resource for information, ideas, and civic engagement.  They serve as havens and sources of lifelong learning for all -- from retirees looking for the latest bestseller, to preschoolers attending story time – and everyone in between.  They bring a sense of equality and trust to the communities that they serve.  They also provide their patrons with the privacy to research and to learn without censorship, and that is part of what makes libraries so special to Vermonters.

Our libraries would be nothing without our dedicated librarians, and we can all recall a time when a librarian helped us with a research project or job application.  The Kellogg-Hubbard Library in Montpelier gave a young Patrick Leahy his first treasured library card when he was four.  But Vermont librarians do so much more.  They educate communitity members on issues of intellectual freedom and they fight for the privacy rights of their fellow citizens.  Librarians are fighting now for your privacy rights in the important debate in Washington over the systemized surveillance of innocent Americans. 

More than a decade ago, librarians were among the first to raise concerns about Section 215 of the USA PATRIOT Act, cautioning that it could result in dragnet searches for the library records or other records of innocent people.  In fact, for years that part of the law was known as the “library records” provision.  Former Attorney General Ashcroft tried to downplay librarians’ concerns, criticizing them for fueling “baseless hysteria.”  But the librarians were right.  Section 215 has been interpreted too broadly and is being used by the National Security Agency to indiscriminately collect the phone records of countless innocent Americans.

It is time to end this bulk collection program.  This program has not been proven essential to preventing terrorist attacks, and certainly is not worth the massive privacy intrusion.  With the help and support of the American Library Association and librarians throughout Vermont and across the country, we are making progress. 

For the past two years, Congress has been debating the very issues that librarians raised nearly 14 years ago.  Finally, Congress is poised to put meaningful limits on government surveillance through the bipartisan and bicameral USA FREEDOM Act.  As Vermont’s senior senator and state librarian, we have worked together since 2013 to advance this bill and to grow the coalition that supports it.  The Senate Judiciary Committee convened six committee hearings on the issues of privacy and national security, and librarians have brought the discussion to their communities and made the case for the USA FREEDOM Act.  This bill would end the current bulk collection of Americans’ phone records — a practice that was recently found to be illegal by our U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit — and bring unprecedented transparency to other government surveillance programs.  Passing the USA FREEDOM Act would be a vindication for the librarians who cautioned against mass surveillance 14 years ago and who continue to do so today. 

We are almost there.  Earlier this month, Democrats and Republicans in the House of Representatives overwhelmingly supported passage of the USA FREEDOM Act.  The bill is now before the Senate and should be voted on this Sunday when senators return to Washington for a showdown vote about Americans’ privacy rights.  Although a bipartisan majority of senators support the bill, a small group of anti-reform senators are blocking it and refuse even to debate it.   They have tried to use fear and distortion to fight against commonsense reform, but after years building a strong network of support for this historic legislation, momentum is on our side. 

Librarians here in Vermont and across the country have been leaders in this fight to protect our privacy rights for years – and they are making a difference.  So the next time you visit your library to attend a program, use the WiFi or browse the shelves, take the time to thank your librarians for the role they play in our community and in our greater democracy. 

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[Patrick Leahy (D) is Vermont’s senior U.S. senator and the Senate author of the original USA FREEDOM Act.  Martha Reid is Vermont’s State Librarian.]