Reining in the surveillance state

In revising the Patriot Act, politics indeed does make strange bedfellows.

In a sign that the possibility of bipartisan cooperation in Congress is not completely dead, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have moved closer to a consensus on modifying the U.S. Patriot Act, which authorizes the government's secret spying program targeting the private phone calls and email messages of millions of ordinary Americans. The act, originally passed in 2001 following the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, is set to expire at the end of June unless Congress reauthorizes it. That has given lawmakers a window of opportunity to add more robust checks and balances to the law that will ensure Americans' privacy rights are protected. We urge them to take advantage of it.

Ever since 2013, when former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden revealed the existence of the NSA's bulk data collection program, critics have charged the agency's snooping represents a massive violation of the Fourth Amendment ban on unlawful searches and seizures and raises the specter of a ubiquitous "Big Brother" intruding into virtually every aspect of Americans' private lives. Under current law the NSA can collect information on literally every electronic message Americans transmit or receive, regardless of whether they have any connection to terrorists or even whether the agency thinks they have.

The NSA insists it doesn't listen to or read the actual contents of the messages it intercepts. But simply by recording the "metadata" of such communications — the date, time, duration and location of calls, for example — it can build up a remarkably detailed profile of a person's daily habits and activities, finances and network of family and friends, as well as employment and medical histories, political orientation or party affiliation. Civil liberties groups rightly question why the government needs access to that much information about all Americans regardless of whether they are believed to be connected to terrorism.

No wonder conservative and libertarian Republicans have joined with liberal Democrats in both chambers of Congress to call for changes in a law they all consider overly broad. Identical bills in the House and Senate introduced late last month would end the NSA's bulk data collection program and instead require telecommunications companies to keep that information, which the agency could only access after getting approval from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court. Another change in the act would create an advisory panel to brief the secret court on privacy and civil liberties issues and require it to make its decisions public.

The axiom that politics makes strange bedfellows is certainly true in this case. In the House, Rep. Trey Gowdy, Republican of South Carolina, has joined with Rep. Jerrold Nadler, a New York Democrat, to push for change, while in the Senate Vermont Democrat Patrick Leahy and Utah Republican Mike Lee find themselves on the same side against GOP Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina. Both Mr. McConnell and Mr. Burr want to extend the current law without change.

Mr. McConnell, in fact, is even out of step this time even with his Republican counterpart in the House, Speaker John A. Boehner, who now finds himself in an unlikely alliance that includes President Barack Obama, the tea party and a bipartisan majority in his own chamber that favors modifying the law. Such a realignment of forces is a testament to a changing mood in the country from the post-9/11 focus on doing whatever was necessary to protect national security to one that at the same time recognizes the need to protect Americans' civil liberties as well.

Even so it may be difficult to judge how much difference it will make to have phone companies keep data on their own servers rather than on the NSA's, or to require the FISA court to make major decisions public, given the wall of secrecy both institutions operate behind. Nevertheless, the country clearly wants Congress to begin reining in the surveillance state, and Congress has gotten the message. Those agencies must be at least somewhat more transparent about their intrusion into people's private lives, and there's no better opportunity to make that happen than the reauthorization of the Patriot Act.

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