COLUMN: Protecting Civil Rights and Our National Security: The USA Freedom Act Strikes a Balance
No American should fear that their government has made a false choice between prioritizing either national security or civil rights. Our nation needs a continuing, robust debate on the proper balance the federal government should strike in defending American lives and freedoms. As that debate continues, Americans deserve more transparency and accountability—the federal government must address legitimate civil rights concerns and reform intelligence agencies’ approach to surveillance in a manner that maintains security of the homeland.
Last year’s revelation—leaked by intelligence contractor Edward Snowden—that the National Security Agency (NSA) was secretly collecting bulk telephone metadata raised serious questions of whether the federal government overstepped the bounds of Americans’ privacy rights. The NSA was acting without a warrant to collect bulk phone call metadata—which does not include the content of phone calls but the information on what phone numbers are called—claiming authority under Section 215 of USA Patriot Act. The revelations created a public firestorm as well as uncertainty for the reauthorization of the Patriot Act, which expires on June 1 of this year. Just this month, the US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit ruled that such bulk collections violate the law because they are unauthorized under Section 215 of the Patriot Act.
The federal government should have every legal tool necessary to protect national security while safeguarding Americans’ constitutional civil rights. For this reason, I voted in favor of the bipartisan USA Freedom Act of 2015 (H.R. 2048) to address where the NSA overstepped and to continue to give law enforcement the legal tools necessary to track terrorists and keep Americans safe. The Freedom Act provides additional privacy safeguards by clarifying Section 215, narrowing the scope of the NSA’s ability to collect and store data without a warrant. The Freedom Act ends indiscriminate bulk data collection of all phone metadata. Instead of the dragnet that catches all phone call data, the new legislation requires targeted collection of call data with the prior approval of the court. The Freedom Act also creates an advisory panel to advise Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act Court on matters of privacy and civil liberties.
The Freedom Act improves accountability by reforming National Security Letter (NSL) nondisclosure or “gag” orders, specifying that such orders must be based on a danger to national security or interference with an investigation. The Freedom Act takes new steps to improve transparency and accountability. The bill also improves national security by closing security loopholes under current law which require federal agencies to cease tracking foreign terrorists once they enter the U.S. Under the new provision, agencies would be empowered to track foreign terrorists upon entry in the U.S. for 72 hours while securing a warrant to continue pursuit.
The debate on how to provide security and protect civil rights can and should continue as long as our nation faces foreign threats. After the alarming revelations of the NSA’s bulk-collection of phone call data, the Freedom Act reforms strike a much-needed balance between the need for intelligence agencies to operate effectively and the need to safeguard privacy rights of Americans.