EDITORIAL: Spying rules need updates

New and improved version of Church Committee could chart the course.

March 22, 2014 

In the mid-1970s, Americans learned that the government was spying on them -- reading their international telegrams, listening to their phone calls if they were in the civil rights or anti-war movements and more. It took a congressional investigative committee to uncover the full scope of the monitoring and to help stop it.

With history repeating itself, we urgently need another thorough public accounting of abuses by the nation's intelligence agencies and a clear path to protect our civil liberties in the post-9/11 digital age. A new, high-profile investigative committee could very well be the vehicle to get that done.

Fifteen staff members of the 1975-76 panel -- commonly known as the Church Committee for its chairman, the late Sen. Frank Church of Idaho -- sent an important letter Monday to President Barack Obama and Congress calling for the creation of a "Church Committee for the 21st century."

The panel would hold hearings, obtain documents and make recommendations for oversight and reform. To avoid the shortcomings and dissension that marred the old committee, a new one would need bipartisan backing and White House support. It also must have a clear mission and be as transparent as possible. "Nothing less than the confidence of the American public in our intelligence agencies and, indeed, the federal government, is at stake," the staffers said in the letter.

They are absolutely right.

The former Church Committee staffers note that their conclusions from their 1976 report "seem eerily prescient today" -- notably that "sweeping domestic surveillance programs, conducted under the guise of foreign intelligence collection, had repeatedly undermined the privacy rights of U.S. citizens."

It has become obvious that the reforms that came out of the Church Committee need updating.

One reform was the passage of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act to put some ground rules on domestic spying. But the National Security Agency has flouted the rules, found ways around them and taken full advantage of technological advances to conduct massive surveillance of ordinary Americans.

In January, President Obama finally announced some limits on collecting phone data, but didn't even go as far as a panel of his own experts recommended. The primary authors of the USA Patriot Act, passed in the aftermath of 9/11, have introduced the USA Freedom Act to curtail surveillance. It has bipartisan support from 163 co-sponsors, but remains stuck in House and Senate committees.

A new investigative committee could build from existing legislative proposals, consider ideas from outside groups and make sure any reforms are sufficient to restore the correct balance between our security and our liberty.

The office of Sen. Dianne Feinstein, chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, wouldn't say last week whether she supports the proposed new committee. She ought to champion it, as should any other member of Congress truly concerned by what the CIA and NSA have done.

Our elected representatives have been too timid in confronting the intelligence community's overreach. A new investigative committee would compel them to action.

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