Our View: Congress is too slow in limiting domestic surveillance

09/12/2013 5:26 PM

09/12/2013 5:27 PM

The more that is revealed about how extensive the National Security Agency’s surveillance of Americans really is, the clearer it is that the balance between security and privacy is seriously out of whack – and that Congress must fix it.

The NSA is using every technology at its disposal to snoop on emails and phone calls, while promising to police itself. That arrangement may be good for the agency, but it’s not working for Americans.

It was overshadowed Tuesday because of the fast-moving developments in the Syria crisis, but it should not go unnoticed that the Obama administration released documents in which the NSA admitted it wrongly put 16,000 phone numbers on a terrorist alert list that allowed the agency to monitor incoming calls.

The agency was granted permission in 2006 to routinely collect data on domestic phone calls, but pledged to tap into them only when it had a “reasonable” suspicion that a phone number was linked to a suspected terrorist. Three years later, Justice Department officials discovered that 16,000 of the 18,000 numbers on the alert list shouldn’t have been on it. After they notified the secret court that oversees surveillance, the NSA blamed the mistake on complex technology and said it would fix its tracking software.

This breach was so egregious that a judge on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which has given far too much deference to the government, called it a “flagrant violation” and said the NSA’s explanation “strains credulity.”

The documents – sued for by the American Civil Liberties Union and Electronic Frontier Foundation – are only the latest to raise serious doubts about whether NSA can be trusted with the sweeping authority it was given after 9/11.

Last month, the agency declassified three FISA court opinions that showed it improperly collected tens of thousands of Americans’ emails for three years, as it scooped up foreign Internet traffic. In 2011, the court ruled the program unconstitutional and ordered the NSA to find ways to stay away from Americans’ emails.

Also last month, an internal NSA audit provided by leaker Edward Snowden showed that the agency has repeatedly violated privacy rules or exceeded its legal authority since Congress gave it more sweeping powers in 2008. The May 2012 audit counted nearly 2,800 incidents in the preceding 12 months, most of them unauthorized surveillance of Americans or foreigners within the United States.

Certainly, terrorists continue to threaten America and intelligence agencies need the tools to help disrupt plots. But as much as possible, surveillance should be focused on suspected terrorists and steer clear of innocent Americans.

With each damning disclosure, it is becoming more and more obvious that more limits need to be placed on domestic spying. It doesn’t appear that President Barack Obama will do so, so it’s up to Congress.

While members of Congress in both parties have been expressing much consternation, they have yet to take real action. In July, an amendment narrowly failed that would have prevented the NSA from collecting domestic phone records unless it was limited to a specific person under investigation. Some 20 bills have been introduced to restrain the NSA’s powers, increase transparency or change the FISA court, but they have not advanced very far.

How much more evidence does Congress require to get serious about reform? Individual privacy is among the most cherished of our liberties. It’s about time our elected representatives act like it.

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