If Congress revises the Patriot Act to moderate the collection of data by the federal government, it will be progress. But it won’t change the fact that the government’s invasion of Americans’ privacy and collection of their personal data have gone too far, as Sen. Rand Paul has been all but shouting from the rooftops.
Much of what has been done isn’t even authorized in the Patriot Act, passed in 2001 and highlighted by secrets leaker Edward Snowden. Some of the domestic spying may not be legally authorized at all. And while gathering intelligence is central to our ability to stop terrorism, freedom from surveillance is central to our values as a nation.
At midnight Sunday, three provisions of the Patriot Act expired. For the moment, the National Security Agency cannot collect the phone records of Americans en masse. And the FBI cannot obtain new wiretaps on people merely because they use a lot of disposable cellphones. Nor can it get wiretaps for “terrorism suspects” not linked to groups or obtain business records for terrorism investigations.
Paul, the Kentucky Republican running for president, wants to drastically reduce surveillance. He filibustered for almost 11 hours over the Memorial Day weekend to stop renewal of the Patriot Act and threatened more mayhem Sunday. What that will get him is a compromise.
The House of Representatives passed the Freedom Act, which would require phone records to be collected by phone companies, but only let the government see them with a request approved by a secret court. It would limit retention of Internet search data and allow Internet companies to disclose government requests for data. The Senate will likely pass a version of that bill, maybe as soon as Tuesday. The president will sign it. It will be an improvement.
But it won’t address the fact that our intelligence agencies seem not to follow the law when it doesn’t suit them. It won’t address the fact that intelligence oversight committees in the House and the Senate have been lax. And it won’t address or answer the crucial question, which people like Rand Paul and Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont are being excoriated for even asking: How much American liberty are we willing to forfeit to protect American liberty?