Public debate over NSA spying has only just begun

If you thought last week’s vote on the amendment offered by Rep. Justin Amash (R-MI) to defund the NSA was the end of the fight to restore privacy rights, think again.

Just a couple years ago, it seemed that the PATRIOT Act and other constitutionally questionable legislation were destined to pass each time they came up for renewal. There were some minor victories along the way, but news of the NSA’s broad surveillance program, through which the agency collects third-party records (including phone records and Internet metadata), sparked a welcome backlash from Americans and many members of Congress.

The result was a strong push by civil libertarians from both parties to preserve the Fourth Amendment, which guarantees the right to privacy, but not hamper the intelligence community from doing their jobs. Instead of blanket surveillance, however, Amash’s amendment would have simply required that data collection “pertain to a person who is the subject of an investigation.”

The vote on the Amash amendment was much closer that many civil libertarians thought it would be. Just two years ago, the PATRIOT Act, through which the NSA has claimed the power to broadly surveil Americans, was renewed by a 275-144 vote.

But last week’s debate showed a tremendous shift towards privacy. Though it failed, 205-217, if just seven members had changed their votes, it would have passed. And that’s despite strong opposition from the White House and the intelligence community in addition to congressional leaders from both parties.

Privacy advocates, including a bipartisan coalition in Congress, including the Republican author of the PATRIOT Act, have pledged to keep fighting to rollback the unconstitutional activities of the intelligence community.

Of course, supporters of the surveillance program, many of whom are in bed with the defense industry, have invoked emotion in the arguments for the program, rather than have a debate on how the collection of this information puts civil liberties at risk. They say that the NSA program has stopped terrorist attacks, but those claims are specious at best.

Even the chairman of the 9/11 Commission, Tom Kean and Lee Hamilton, have expressed concerns over how the program was put into place, the lack of oversight, and the effect on Americans’ privacy.

As The New York Times notes this morning, the momentum is in the corner of civil libertarians. People are questioning their government and invocations of 9/11, which President Obama and many in Congress believe gives them carte blanche to run roughshod over the Bill of Rights, just aren’t going to fly anymore.

We’re finally having a long-needed public debate over the balance between liberty and security. And though there will be successes and frustrations to come along the way, civil libertarians have finally shifted the narrative.


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