My colleague Zach wrote this blog a couple of weeks ago about the recently leaked revelations of the National Security Administration’s massive collection of data on Americans – and others in the U.S. – through cell-phone and internet records. And while Edward Snowden, the man responsible for these leaks, may not be going anywhere anytime soon, the legislative and political response to these programs’ disclosures continues to develop.
Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR), a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee and one of the leading civil libertarians in the Senate, discussed these developments at a briefing sponsored by the Center for American Progress on Tuesday. Senator Wyden said that these revelations had “lit the surveillance world on fire” and finally started the conversation – a conversation he had been trying to start unsuccessfully for years – about the Administration’s opaque interpretation of the Patriot Act and secret use of these surveillance programs. Demanding action, Senator Wyden continued – “If we do not seize this unique moment in our constitutional history to reform our surveillance laws and practices, we will all live to regret it. “
The first attempt from Congress to heed this call to rein in the NSA’s surveillance programs came in an amendment offered late Wednesday night to the defense appropriations bill in House. The amendment – offered by a bipartisan team comprised of libertarian Republican Justin Amash (R-MI) and ranking member of the House Judiciary Committee and Dean of the Black Caucus John Conyers (D-MI) – would have used funding restrictions to limit the collection of data to specific targets of law enforcement investigations, rather than massive ‘dragnet’ programs.
The White House and the leadership of both parties opposed the provision, but it has considerable support from civil libertarian groups like the American Civil Liberties Union. Ultimately the amendment failed by just twelve votes; 111 Democrats and 94 Republicans voted for the amendment, 83 Democrats and 134 Republicans voted against it. This was one of those truly bi-partisan votes that has become all-too rare in recent years.
Following the vote the amendment’s champions vowed to continue the fight. “This is only the beginning,” Rep. Conyers promised. “The time has come to stop [transparent surveillance],” added Representative Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI), the original author of the Patriot Act who has begun to change his position on such surveillance programs.
The Reform Jewish Movement spoke out against illegal wire-tapping programs and many provisions of the Patriot Act when it was first passed in the wake of 9/11. In its 2003 Resolution “Civil Liberties and National Security: Striking the Proper Balance” the Movement acknowledged that Judaism demands a proper respect for individual freedoms and the right to privacy even in the important work of protecting national security. The struggle to find that proper balance continues today and informs our work as we monitor the developments regarding the NSA’s cell-phone and Internet data collection programs.