The New York Times said the following in an editorial:
The Senate is about to begin debate on a bill that could, at long last, put an end to the indiscriminate bulk collection of Americans’ telephone records and bring needed transparency to the abusive spying programs that have tarnished the nation’s reputation.
The bill, to be introduced on Tuesday by Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, is a significant improvement over the halfhearted measure passed by the House in May. That legislation was notable for putting even Republicans on the record in opposition to the broad domestic spying efforts of the intelligence agencies, but its final version was watered down at the insistence of the White House.
Leahy said at the time that he wanted to write a stronger bill, and, after negotiating with the White House, he has. Both bills would stop the flow of telephone data into the computers of the National Security Agency, keeping the information with the phone companies, where it belongs. But the Senate bill takes a major step in limiting how much of that data the NSA can request.
It would require the agency to ask for the records of a specific person or address it is tracking, instead of conducting a broad dragnet of an entire area code or city in the hopes of turning up something useful. The government would have to show why it thinks the records it requests are related to a foreign terrorist agent. The vague language in the House bill could easily have been exploited by the agency’s lawyers to conduct far more snooping on personal records than is really needed during a terrorism investigation.
The new bill would also make the process more transparent by requiring the government to disclose how many people’s data was collected by intelligence agencies, and how many of those people were American. It eliminates the one-year waiting period before a recipient can raise a legal challenge to a national security letter, which has been used as a form of extrajudicial subpoena by the FBI.
One of the best parts of the bill is a set of changes to the operation of the secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which is often asked to approve the government’s intelligence actions. Currently the judges on the court hear the government’s case without hearing an opposing side. Leahy’s bill would create a panel of advocates to argue before the court in support of privacy rights and civil liberties, and would require the court to issue public summaries of its decisions that specifically detail the impact on those rights.
The bill could have gone further in allowing the advocates to intervene in a case on behalf of surveillance targets, as a former judge on the surveillance court advocated recently. In addition, privacy advocates and other senators have backed a proposal requiring the government to get the court’s permission before examining communications of Americans that were collected when tracking foreigners. (Spying on noncitizens does not require a judicial warrant, but sometimes that spy data also turns up the records of Americans.) Leahy should add that provision to his bill, following a similar amendment approved last month by the House.
Overall, the bill represents a breakthrough in the struggle against the growth of government surveillance power. The Senate should pass it without further dilution, putting pressure on the House to do the same.