Americans learned over the past couple of years that the federal government has been snooping into their lives. Now they will learn if Congress has the courage to restore privacy protections by amending the Patriot Act before renewing it.
Congress originally passed the Patriot Act in the harried weeks after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Those lawmakers had the foresight to recognize that the bill might be imperfect. They built in a sunset date a few years out. Congress has since renewed it a couple of times, always with another sunset so that the nation could reassess its effectiveness.
The last time the Patriot Act was up for renewal, some lawmakers warned that intelligence agencies were secretly abusing it in ways that would stun and anger Americans. Congress renewed it anyway.
Those warnings proved true. The controversial leaks by Edward Snowden revealed that the National Security Agency collects and analyzes phone records and other data about millions of Americans. A web of surveillance ensnares regular citizens never suspected of a crime or of links to terrorism.
Government lawyers justified that monitoring with a secret legal framework based on the Patriot Act. A federal appeals court recently called their reasoning into question. Even if that ruling stands, though, greater legal clarity is needed lest federal lawyers simply erect a new secret framework.
On Wednesday, the House of Representatives tried to provide that clarity by passing the USA Freedom Act with broad bipartisan support. It contains some, if not all, of the privacy reforms advocates want. Most important, it will place new limits on the NSA’s bulk data collection.
It now heads to the Senate, where its fate is in doubt. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and some of his allies prefer a clean reauthorization, leaving in place the NSA’s surveillance ability.
Fortunately, bipartisan defenders of freedom — and Freedom — are standing up to the Senate leadership. Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden and Republican Sen. Rand Paul have threatened to filibuster reauthorization without reforms.
President Barack Obama also supports reform. So do many technology companies. They warn that an international perception that the American government can dip into data stored in the cloud will drive them to services based in other countries. That is driving innovation abroad, costing revenue and jobs.
There’s always the chance that the bill winds up more symbolic than effective in turning back the NSA’s massive surveillance program. But it’s a start. And in the current environment in Congress, Senate passage of the reform bill would be quite an accomplishment.