Guest Commentary

One year in, it's finally time for NSA reform

Bob Lord

Almost one year after the first Snowden leaks revealed that the U.S. government has been leading a massive surveillance operation against its own citizens, Congress may finally pass its very first piece of NSA reform legislation. But how much would it actually reform? The answer isn't as clear as the American public deserves.

Here's what we know: Almost a year ago, we discovered that the NSA was spying on innocent American citizens, including gathering phone records and online data, tracking the location of cellphones, storing personal details of phone calls and other communications for up to five years, and more. Today, the USA Freedom Act, championed by a former author of the Patriot Act, is considered by many privacy advocates to be the most practical first step toward NSA reform. It could come up for a vote any day now. A parallel bill from a small group of House Intelligence Committee champions of the NSA is competing for votes at the same time. It would largely codify the most problematic parts of domestic surveillance, with only the most basic lip service toward Americans' concerns of accountability and transparency.

Here's what we also know: Virtually every major credible poll shows that Americans overwhelmingly are outraged by the NSA's surveillance.  The nation's tech giants have spoken directly with the Obama administration to call for change. The list of plaintiffs suing to stop the spying ranges from the NRA to Greenpeace, from the Council on American-Islamic Relations to one of the nation's most controversial Tea Partyers, Larry Klayman.  The court responsible for overseeing the foreign-intelligence gathering also has found numerous abuses, ruled part of the dragnet unconstitutional and admitted it can only oversee what the spies admit to.

Moving up the chain of command, the two oversight bodies assigned to report on the programs—one handpicked by the White House—both concluded that what the government was doing threatened personal privacy and our nation's global leadership in technical industries. The independent commission even judged the program to be illegal. The president himself has conceded that it's time to restore the public trust by dialing back the powers his administration claims to have. 

The question is, just which measure should Congress pass?  The bipartisan USA Freedom Act, sponsored by Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy and Republican Rep. James Sensenbrenner, has gathered 21 co-sponsors in the Senate and 142 co-sponsors in the House. 

So far, this is the bill to stand behind.

The USA Freedom Act would end the NSA's call records program under Section 215 of the Patriot Act. It would also end all other bulk collections, which might include Internet searches and credit card, medical or gun purchase records.  It is endorsed by civil liberties groups such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the American Civil Liberties Union; companies such as Google and Hewlett-Packard; and advocacy groups as diverse as the Arab American Institute and the Republican Liberty Caucus. 

The alternatives make small concessions offered by politicians who seek to preserve the status quo. In fact, the other options all make the spying worse by expanding the dragnet to include uses besides terrorism, creating another exception for domestic spying, and expanding the kinds of records that can be collected to create network maps.

There's some concern that the USA Freedom Act may evolve over the next several days or weeks into a bill that would be worth less than the paper it's written on. This is valid: The USA Freedom Act is real reform only if it provides real public oversight over the NSA, including transparency measures. We cannot afford to take out or edit measures that would provide the bulk of the reform.

It's time for Arizona's representatives in Congress to get behind the USA Freedom Act, the only meaningful bill on the table.  With the public, businesses, advocacy groups and the true believers of both parties all in agreement, Congress has no excuse. It must pass strong legislation placing clear limits on our nation's surveillance system. 

Bob Lord, an associate fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies and a former congressional candidate, practices law in Phoenix.