I'm still waiting for that national conversation on the Patriot Act, but it seems that members of Congress would rather not talk about it.
This is unfortunate, I think, because we are missing a wonderful opportunity to discuss the balance between national security and privacy. We are also missing an opportunity to show the world how democracy works as we determine our priorities.
The media haven't taken this opportunity to shine, either. Instead of helping the American public have this discussion, the media have spent most of their time discussing the whereabouts of former National Security Agency employee Edward Snowden, and where he might find a place to live out his life in exile. As always, it is drama over substance.
To their credit, some members of Congress have tried to initiate a conversation around this topic. For example, Sen. Rand Paul, of Kentucky, has introduced legislation that would require the federal government to have a search warrant before looking at an individual's phone or email records. Currently, a secret court of judges reviews the government's general request to look at a broad array of phone or email records, not an individual case by case review and approval as suggested by Paul.
The government's argument is that it doesn't know who is talking on the phone with or emailing terrorists until it searches all records. Thus, it says, Paul's bill would not serve our national security needs. In addition, the government argues that an independent court already approves its requests and serves the purpose of a warrant.
Senators Mark Udall, of Colorado, and Ron Wyden, of Oregon, have offered a bill that would put limits on the amount and type of data the government may collect. This would be helpful. But to have a discussion on the amount and types of data collected, Congress needs to have a discussion on current methods. This is a conversation that few in Congress want to have.
"The secret collection of phone records of millions of Americans reminds us why we need sensible limits on the government's surveillance powers," Udall said. "Now is the time to have an informed public debate about how we protect our cherished constitutional rights while also keeping our nation secure."
Senators Jeff Merkley, of Oregon, and Mike Lee, of Utah, co-sponsored a bill that would take the "secret" out of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. This is the court that approves the review of phone records and emails. The goal here is to offer the American people transparency in the proceedings and decisions of the court. Of the bills presented thus far, their idea has picked up the most co-sponsors within Congress, but not enough for a serious debate.
Currently, few Americans know much about this secret court. The head of the court is Judge Reggie Walton, a 64-year-old African American appointed to the Superior Court of the District of Columbia by President Ronald Reagan in 1981. He later served as President George W. Bush's assistant drug czar, and then as a presidential adviser. The members of the secret court are appointed by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, John Roberts. Walton was appointed in 2007.
Would Americans have more confidence in the court review process if we knew the judges and the process they followed? These are good questions that Congress may want to consider.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, of Vermont, wants Congress to review the entire Patriot Act and the secret court process. But Leahy doesn't see any momentum in Congress for such a review.
Who says that Democrats and Republicans can't agree on anything? At this point it seems that when it comes to the Patriot Act and the secret FISA court, there is significant agreement between the two parties to do nothing.