More than a decade ago, in the aftermath of 9/11, Congress approved the Patriot Act, a law that opponents warned would grant the federal government virtually unlimited authority to spy on U.S. citizens. Recent revelations about the National Security Agency’s mass-surveillance program make clear that the act has been invoked to do just that.
Last week, the House rejected legislation that would have stripped the government of its authority to collect data on large swaths of Americans. But the closeness of the bipartisan vote suggests that the issue isn’t going away.
The proposed amendment to the Pentagon budget bill would have prevented the NSA from collecting “tangible things,” such as phone and email records, from Americans who are not under federal investigation. Its sponsors said it would rein in unchecked federal surveillance and protect the public’s reasonable expectation of privacy.
In opposing the amendment, the Obama Administration insisted it would “hastily dismantle one of our intelligence community’s counterterrorism tools.” But the evidence that the Patriot Act, which authorizes the government to keep records on Americans, has thwarted any serious terrorist plot against the United States is more asserted than shown.
The White House called the amendment a “blunt approach” that “is not the product of an informed, open, or deliberative process.” Compared to what? The government’s widespread and secretive surveillance program, which has collected data on the phone and email records of Americans?
Nor does the administration’s response to a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union, which asserted that the plaintiffs — and, by extension, Americans — do not have legal standing to challenge the constitutionality of the surveillance program, resemble an open and informed process.
The White House’s response to the amendment, on the heels of its motion to dismiss a lawsuit challenging NSA surveillance, again suggests the administration’s refusal to level with Americans about its surveillance program. Its effort to quash what it calls an extreme threat to the nation’s counterterrorism efforts ignored the real content of a proposal that would simply have limited the group about whom the federal government is able to gather records to those who are under investigation.
Despite the aggressive lobbying against the amendment by President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, it won the support of both libertarian Republicans and liberal Democrats, and failed by just 12 votes. That narrow defeat suggests that with the urging of American voters, Congress may yet muster the political resolve to rein in the national surveillance state.