Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

How to End the NSA Dragnet

Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

How to End the NSA Dragnet

Article excerpt

One year ago this month, Americans learned that their government was engaged in secret dragnet surveillance, which contradicted years of assurances to the contrary from senior government officials and intelligence leaders.

On this anniversary, it is more important than ever to let Congress and the administration know that Americans will reject half-measures that could still allow the government to collect millions of Americans' records without any individual suspicion or evidence of wrongdoing.

It is time to end the dragnet - and to affirm that we can keep our nation secure without trampling on and abandoning Americans' constitutional rights.

For years, in both statements to the public and open testimony before the House and Senate, senior government officials claimed that domestic surveillance was narrow in focus and limited in scope. But in June 2013, Americans learned through leaked classified documents that these claims bore little resemblance to reality. In fact, the NSA has been relying on a secret interpretation of the USA Patriot Act to vacuum up the phone records of millions of law-abiding citizens. Under a separate program, intelligence agencies are using a loophole in the law to read some Americans' emails without ever getting a warrant.

Dragnet surveillance was approved by a secret court that normally hears only the government's side of major cases. It had been debated only in a few secret congressional committee hearings, and many members of Congress were entirely unaware it. When laws like the Patriot Act were reauthorized, a vocal minority of senators and representatives - including the three of us - objected, but the secrecy surrounding these programs made it difficult to mobilize public support.

And yet, it was inevitable that mass surveillance and warrantless searches would eventually be exposed. When the plain text of the law differs so dramatically from how it is interpreted and applied, in effect creating a body of secret law, it simply isn't sustainable. So when the programs' existence became public last summer, huge numbers of Americans were justifiably stunned and angry at how they had been misled and by the degree to which their privacy rights had been routinely violated. Inflated claims about the program's value have burst under public scrutiny, and there is now a groundswell of public support for reform.

Benjamin Franklin once warned that a society that trades essential liberties for short-term security risks losing both. That is still true today, and even the staunchest defenders of mass surveillance concede that reforms are inevitable.

The debate over exactly what reforms should be made is likely to continue for at least the next few years as Americans continue to learn about the scale of ongoing government surveillance activities. …

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