NSA: Never Self Aware

Listen to this article

It’s been almost a month since Congress passed to the USA Freedom Act, reforming NSA surveillance laws contained within the Patriot Act.

What constitutes a “matter of national security” is a baffling concept for many Americans. On one hand, we’re told to trust the government’s choices and give up a few civil liberties (tiny little things, like … our privacy) in exchange. On the other, an alarming number of people seem to be on board with the “My rights are worth more than your rights” train, turning every nitpick into the next cause for a Supreme Court ruling.

So here’s a question for you: If two crazy trains leave the station as Congress passes the USA Freedom Act reforming Patriot Act security measures, how long will it take before these trains (aka: completely opposite viewpoints) collide and create a crazy mess?

I don’t know. That’s why they started taking those darn word problems off the standardized tests. (That, and we’re getting dumber, but that’s beside the point. Or maybe it isn’t.)

In any case, I think we can all agree that any direction away from a deeply flawed piece of legislation is an improvement. What changes will be made, exactly?

Well, for one thing, the government will no longer have the ability to collect phone records, and warrants will be a prerequisite to phone metadata. (Before, the certain provisions of the Patriot Act allowed “Sneak and Peaks,” which allowed delayed notification of search and seizure. Not only could government agents search a house and electronic records, but they could do so while the property owner was out, not alerting them until after the fact.) Furthermore, they cannot target individuals with collected and shared data from federally prompted investigations.

The National Security Agency now has more limits to how much it can intrude on our privacy. (Wikipedia)
The National Security Agency now has more limits to how much it can intrude on our privacy. (Wikipedia)

One of the key players here is Senator Patrick Leahy, a Democrat from Vermont who convinced the Democrats to rally and maintain their views that a comprehensive re-analysis and overhaul of the Patriot Act was necessary. Leading the Democrats on the Judiciary Committee, Leahy has been instrumental in passing this reform.

The National Journal reported more on the process, particularly the dynamics of Republican and Democratic congressmen who had to play nice (albeit briefly).

With Rand Paul repolarizing himself in his efforts to not only block the new reform—essentially a compromise—but completely repeal the Patriot Act, the atmosphere must have been tense.

Senator Mike Lee, a Republican from Utah, helped author the USA Freedom Act, standing as one of the few conservatives in full support of surveillance reform. At the forefront of the opposition, John McCain and Lindsey Graham asserted that passing this would be an affront to national security, as they argued for actually extending the reach of the Patriot Act.

Undoubtedly, its passage will spell many divisive exchanges, but maybe that’s a good thing. You would think that a government forced to at least look at the failed decisions of the past would have less time and money on their hands to make new mistakes. Ideally. Of course, many still don’t consider the Patriot Act’s hasty passage in 2001 a failure, and some don’t see this new Freedom Act as something requiring fine-tuning.

A few members are acknowledging the challenges ahead. Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, is quoted by the National Journal, saying “[Passing the USA Freedom Act] is only the beginning. There is a lot more to do.”

Call that the understatement of the year. It’s like looking at a foreclosing mansion and calling it a bit of a “fixer upper.” The Patriot Act was a measure taken in a time of such heightened fear and shock that it cannot be considered a reasonable enactment of American political sovereignty. Rather than being a government “by the people, for the people,” the government behind this act seems determined to intrude, evade and prosecute in the name of security.

Bypassing laws of due process, as well as overstepping search and seizure liberties, are two rights that haven’t been taken seriously enough, both by government authorities and the citizens who have so gingerly accepted this. Yes, that’s us.

It would be an act worth revising (rather than simply flat out repealing) if the once-emergent threat continued to rear its head in the exact same manner, with the same culprits, and our national security measures were truly obstructing terrorist activities by searching through countless phone records and electronic accounts. But that’s not the case.

Between 2003 and 2005, government records show that 143, 074 letters were issued by FBI agents approving their ability to obtain secure information from individuals. Of the 53 actual criminal referrals resulting, 17 were for money laundering, 17 for illegal immigration charges, 19 involved cases of fraud, and not a single one was turned in for suspected terrorism. That’s right. According to UCLA’s analysis of the records, titled “Surveillance Under the Patriot Act,” fewer than five years after the 9/11 attacks, the findings produced no progress toward seeking out terrorists.

The same reports found that of 3,970 “Sneak and Peaks” (search and seizure practices), 76 percent of the charges were drug related, 24 percent were labeled “other,” and less than 1 percent were related to acts of terror. That should have been proof enough that the enactment of the Patriot Act was either unnecessary or inappropriate for its intended purposes.

On June 2nd, 2015, the Senate managed to get over McConnell’s insistence that they take yet longer to determine the new layout of NSA surveillance laws within the reform bill. The president, despite some trepidation about endangering national security, signed the USA Freedom Act. Congress made a decision that may or may not matter.

Looking at the failed amendments, it’s not encouraging to think about what slipped through the cracks. They actually had to vote down proposals that would require companies to give 180-day notice of any data storage methods, as well as an amendment that would have allowed the Director of National Intelligence to bypass declassification reviews.

If the government wants American people to trust them, perhaps they could begin by not treating their own citizens like the enemy.