When Rep. Devin Nunes of Tulare becomes chairman of the House Intelligence Committee in January, our hope is that he takes a judicious approach to this important job and works to protect, as much as possible, the privacy of Americans.
Yes, the United States must be on high alert for terrorist attacks. Yes, intelligence gathering is vital to foiling those who wish to do great harm to our citizens and our landmarks. But we shouldn’t needlessly surrender our civil liberties to satisfy the demands of overzealous politicians and intelligence community bureaucrats.
In short, we expect Nunes to refrain from the kind of fear-mongering exhibited by Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, who whipped up enough opposition to stop the USA Freedom Act from moving forward Tuesday.
McConnell, who will become majority leader in January, claimed that any restrictions would somehow let the Islamic State run wild: “This is the worst possible time to be tying our hands behind our backs.”
The act received 58 votes and bipartisan support but needed 60 to advance. It is the first significant legislation in response to Edward Snowden’s earth-shaking revelations last year that the National Security Agency was routinely collecting mind-boggling volumes of information on our daily communications, including who we are calling.
The bill would have required the NSA to ask telecommunications companies for records linked to a specific person. Also, most records would stay in the possession of the phone companies, not be stored in the NSA’s vast data vaults. And it would require the government to disclose summaries of significant decisions by the secret court that is supposed to oversee domestic spying.
These limited steps are supported by the Obama administration and a coalition of technology companies — including California-based Google and Yahoo! — as well as civil liberties groups.
The measure was introduced by the primary authors of USA Patriot Act — not people who are soft on terrorism. It also had backing from Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, the outgoing chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee who has defended the NSA. In a statement, she said the measure “may have been the best opportunity” to improve transparency and protect privacy “while maintaining the government’s ability to use this tool to prevent terrorist attacks at home and abroad.”
The GOP-controlled House passed a version of the legislation in May, but it was so watered down that privacy advocates abandoned it. While there will be another debate when the section of the Patriot Act authorizing collection of phone records comes up for reauthorization next June, it seems unlikely the new Republican-majority Senate will make any major changes.
Nunes, it should be noted, voted for the House bill. If he wants to make an immediate mark as House Intelligence Committee chair, championing reasonable limits to surveillance of Americans would be a good start.