NSA Abused Trust, Must Be Reined In
It is impossible to forget the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. And it is not easy to forget what followed: fear, anger and an upwelling of patriotism. Throughout our nation's history, we've fought in wars both at home and abroad, but until that day, most Americans felt invincible from an attack from the outside world.
Following 9-11, the United States felt an unfamiliar vulnerability, but we also felt more unified than ever.
Congress knew it had to act to enhance the tools the intelligence community needed to identify and track terrorists, but we never forgot what makes our country great: freedoms and liberties unlike anywhere else in the world. I led a bicameral group of legislators that came together and passed the USA Patriot Act with strong bipartisan support.
President Ronald Reagan said, "trust but verify." After 9-11, with the country at risk and poised to enter its most intensive conflict since the Vietnam War, Congress extended the administration broader powers to help protect the American people. But the National Security Agency abused that trust.
It ignored restrictions painstakingly crafted by lawmakers and assumed a plenary authority never imagined by Congress. Worse, the NSA has cloaked its operations behind such a thick cloud of secrecy that, even if our trust was restored, Congress and the American people would lack the ability to verify it.
Our constitutional democracy was built to be accountable to the people. That principle can never be compromised.
Earlier this year, Americans were rightly outraged to learn that the NSA is collecting in bulk the phone records of nearly every American. More recently, the media has revealed additional classified information that has added to our concerns.
Since the revelation that the NSA is collecting the details of Americans' phone calls on an unprecedented scale, we have learned that the government searches the content of huge troves of emails, collects in bulk the address books from email accounts and social networking sites, at least temporarily collected geolocation data from our cellphones, committed thousands of privacy violations and lied to courts and Congress. This is not the America our founders envisioned.
Not only do many of these programs raise serious legal questions, they have come at a high cost to Americans' privacy rights, business interests and standing in the international community.
On Oct. 31, the Senate Intelligence Committee voted to give the NSA the authority to collect private data on innocent Americans. In an 11-4 vote, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) presided over the first congressional vote in our country's history to allow unrestrained spying on the American people.
I am committed to a different approach.
On Oct. 29, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy and I came together to introduce the USA Freedom Act. The bill has co-sponsors in the Senate covering the political spectrum, and nearly 90 co-sponsors in the House — almost an even split between Republicans and Democrats.
It also has been endorsed by groups ranging from the National Rifle Association to the American Civil Liberties Union and has the support of many of the tech giants, including AOL, Apple, Facebook, Google, Microsoft and Yahoo.
The USA Freedom Act restores Americans' privacy rights by ending the government's dragnet collection of phone records under Section 215 of the USA Patriot Act and requires greater oversight, transparency and accountability with respect to surveillance authorities.
The bill also provides more safeguards against warrantless surveillance under the FISA Amendments Act and includes significant privacy and oversight provisions, creates a special advocate to focus on the protection of privacy rights before the FISA Court and requires more detailed public reporting.
In short, the USA Freedom Act ensures the law is properly interpreted, past abuses are not repeated and American liberties are protected. And over the coming weeks and months, as more revelations are brought to light and public outrage grows, I will be working to push this important legislation through the House Judiciary Committee and onto the House floor.
There, members can cast their vote to restore trust and accountability to our intelligence community.