The effort to curtail surveillance power in the United States has been in the works ever since documents came to light showing gross oversteps from the National Security Agency (NSA) via former NSA consultant and unofficial whistle blower Edward Snowden, whose name has simultaneously become synonymous with patriotism and disloyalty. Now, with Republicans in control of both the House and Senate, and the Obama Administration focusing on reforming intelligence power, head-butting is looking likely.
The president’s goals
Back in 2013, President Obama called for greater transparency from intelligence programs, and calling for a four-point plan which included: Reform of Section 215 of the Patriot Act — which empowers the FBI for seizure of tangible items in the course of an investigation — renovating the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) by putting an opposition to the government into the equation, demanding release of as much information as possible via documents and data on various programs, and finally, review from non-government experts to evaluate the current system and its effects. A number of those goals required work alongside Congress, and while Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) has taken up surveillance reform last year with similarly liberal viewpoints, the legislative atmosphere has obviously changed since Obama’s announced plan in August of last year.
Senator Leahy’s bill
Even then, the legislation that the House managed to pass in May 2014 left major loopholes according to big tech companies who have voiced concerns about data collection that is still an available tool for intelligence agencies. “This is a debate about American’s fundamental relationship with their government; about whether our government should have the power to create massive databases of information about its citizens or whether we are in control of our own government, not the other way around,” said Sen. Leahy on the Senate floor in proposing a new bill with more stringent rules, according to RT.
However, lawmakers failed to advance the bill, endorsed by the Obama administration, to the Senate floor for debate. After all, it had some very apparent opponents in the majority party, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). He described Leahy’s bill as one that “would end one of our nation’s critical capabilities to gather significant intelligence on terrorist threats,” saying that “this is the worst possible time to be tying our hands behind our backs” — though requiring oversight and limitation to blanket data collection is hardly disarming America’s well-endowed national security effort.Critical capability and September 11
So what critical capability is McConnell referring to? Specifically, he lists the ability to collect and then analyze data to uncover “links to potential terrorists,” claiming that holding that information in a third party — i.e. the phone company — would “make it far harder for records to be gathered for a specific selection term.” He also is concerned that these companies “face no statutory requirement to even hold the relevant data.”
In short, the Republican argument comes down to terrorism and ISIL, with an emphasis on the technological abilities of extremist groups and the efforts made at drawing western and European recruits. Many Democrats, including President Obama, argue that since 9/11, national intelligence powers have grown in tandem with new demands and emergency requirements, but that these powers must eventually be limited. Besides simply needing to have an end date, they aren’t necessary to keep the nation safe. If situational powers are extended in perpetuity, liberties are in danger.
“The authorities we enacted after September 11, 2011 — which were crafted to ensure that we integrated intelligence gathered overseas and here in the United States — are acutely relevant now. We live in a dangerous world. Threats like ISIL only make it more so,” argued McConnell. His rhetoric is clearly one that elevates security interests as the end-all, but one can’t help but question if bulk phone data collection without limit within the United States is “the exact tools we need to combat ISIL.” There’s also the argument to be made that securing the safety of a nation is vital, but once that government steps on the rights and privacy of its citizens, it makes an enemy of its civilian population and becomes a danger in itself. But that’s assuming that bulk collection being regulated more stringently is integral to keeping the nation safe.
The reality of the matter is — like any organization with a set of goals and obstacles — there are many tools and pathways to a good defense for America’s intelligence organizations. And if Congress places obstacles in the way of the NSA in order to protect against over-surveillance of American citizens, it’s not a zero-sum scenario where the NSA will become powerless if regulation is put in place — as McConnell’s rhetoric seems to suggest.
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