The USA Freedom Act is a reasonable congressional compromise on National Security Agency surveillance protocols and a victory for Americans concerned about striking the right balance between security and civil liberties.
Provisions to curb some Patriot Act surveillance measures were passed by what began as a libertarian-liberal coalition, but became an overwhelming majority in the House and a stubborn but eventual majority in the Senate. At a time of mostly partisan paralysis in the legislative process, it was a meaningful achievement.
Instead of the NSA sweeping up and keeping phone call metadata (but, notably, not phone conversations), those records will be kept with phone companies and won’t be accessible unless a special federal court grants access to the NSA.
Among other key provisions are requirements for more transparency about what has been an opaque process, including the right for phone companies to more frequently report information about the number of government requests they receive. The law will also result in more significant court opinions being declassified and allow outside advocates to state the public’s interest in a specific case.
Opponents of the changes, most notably Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., argued that national security would be compromised. Others, probably including some of the 65 percent of Americans who told the Pew Research Center in May that there are not adequate limits on “what telephone and Internet data the government can collect,” may feel the new law still doesn’t go far enough to safeguard constitutionally guaranteed freedoms.
Americans have reason to be uneasy. It took revelations from rogue NSA contractor Edward Snowden to raise the surveillance issue on the national agenda. (Opinions on Snowden vary, but he, as well as Sens. Rand Paul, a Kentucky Republican, and Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, propelled reform.)
Phone records are not the sole cause of citizen unease. News that the FBI is flying secret reconnaissance flights over the Twin Cities and other metro areas has raised new questions about government overreach. At the same time, many Americans no doubt feel less secure after learning this week that the Transportation Safety Administration can be incompetent as well as inconvenient.
These dynamics suggest that the balance between security and civil liberties is off-kilter, so skepticism about government claims on the impact of surveillance is healthy. But it’s important to remember that most outside experts believe there is no hard evidence that any of the worst fears about surveillance abuses have come to pass, just as there is no hard evidence that the data sweep disrupted any terrorism plots.
Those facts do not preclude either from happening in the future. The healthy debate over the USA Freedom Act is a reminder that our elected representatives must continually challenge assumptions about security and civil liberties and keep pushing for maximum transparency on both fronts.