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Finally forced into action by the revelations of former National Security Agency contractor Eric Snowden, the House last week passed a bill to place some limits on the mass collection of electronic data that Americans have been subjected to in the name of protecting the homeland.
For example, the NSA would no longer be able to collect tens of millions of phone records and digitally cull through them for indications of conspiratorial actions, but instead would have to ask phone companies to probe their databases for suspicious phone numbers.
Unfortunately, in defining these new limited searches, lawmakers acquiesced to the White House and included overly broad language. An original version of the bill restricted searches to "a person, account or entity." The Wall Street Journal reports that the language was changed to "such as" a person, account or entity.
The Obama administration said the flexibility is necessary to assure that intelligence gathering is not inhibited because a target does not technically meet the description of a person, account or entity. Unfortunately, the history of the NSA in these matters is that it exploits vague language to undertake needlessly broad and intrusive digital spying.
Most disappointingly, the bill does not contain provisions for an independent, public advocate who could challenge the legitimacy of search requests filed in the secret surveillance courts. Now, only the government makes the case for searching records, without the adversarial component that is fundamental to a legitimate judicial proceeding.
The Senate should seek to restore the advocate position when it takes up the bill.
While it may not go far enough, the USA Freedom Act is significant. For the first time since 9/11 Congress is recognizing the need to protect the civil liberties that American citizens and their elected leaders were too willing to sacrifice in the wake of those domestic attacks. It sends the message that Congress wants the NSA reined in.