Bill Press: Congress must rein in NSA

Bill Press: Congress must rein in NSA
© Getty Images

George W. Bush started it. Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaRealClearPolitics editor says Trump needs to compromise on border to shift public opinion Obama ‘new blood’ remark has different meaning for Biden  Democratic dark horses could ride high in 2020 MORE expanded it. And last week, a federal appeals court ruled that they both broke the law.

At issue: the National Security Agency’s massive data collection of phone and Internet communications made by every single American. Bush initiated the program by executive order in the wake of the 9/11 attacks in 2001, without seeking the approval of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, authorizing the NSA to conduct wiretaps on all phone calls between anyone in the United States and any party overseas. Then, with permission of the rubber-stamp court, Obama actually expanded the program to include snooping on every phone call made and every email or text sent by every American anywhere, anytime.


Both Bush and Obama argued, and still argue, that the NSA’s “metadata” collection is an essential element of the war against terror, using the vacuous argument that “you can’t find the needle in the haystack without first building the haystack.” (Unless, of course, you collect so much unnecessary hay you’ll never find any needle!) 

Both administrations have also insisted that the NSA’s program is legal under Section 215 of the Patriot Act, which specifically authorizes the collection of records deemed “relevant” to a national security case only, but which they have interpreted to include collection of all records. 

That’s too big a stretch, said the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit. That’s not what the statute says. “Such expansive development of government repositories of formerly private records,” wrote Judge Gerard E. Lynch, “would be an unprecedented contraction of the privacy expectations of all Americans.”

The court’s ruling follows the December 2013 report of Obama’s own commission on NSA spying, which concluded that it could not identify one single case where the collection of metadata revealed or prevented an act of terror. 

This could not come at a better time for Congress, given that Section 215, the disputed clause of the Patriot Act, is set to expire June 1. 

Congress has three options: (1) simply allowing Section 215 to expire, thereby killing the program, as favored by Sens. Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulRand Paul to have hernia surgery in Canada Ron Paul: Remove incentives for illegal immigrants instead of building border wall Congress must take the next steps on federal criminal justice reforms MORE (R-Ky.) and Ron WydenRonald (Ron) Lee WydenHillicon Valley: House chair seeks emergency briefing on wireless industry's data sharing | AG nominee to recuse himself from AT&T-Time Warner merger | Dem questions Treasury, IRS on shutdown cyber risks On The Money: Trump says he won't declare emergency 'so fast' | Shutdown poised to become longest in history | Congress approves back pay for workers | More federal unions sue over shutdown Dem senator presses IRS on cyber risks for taxpayers during shutdown MORE (D-Ore.); (2) passing the USA Freedom Act, sponsored by Sens. Patrick LeahyPatrick Joseph LeahyTSA absences raise stakes in shutdown fight Poll: Sanders most popular senator, Flake least Blumenthal: DOJ denying Dems meetings with AG nominee Barr, citing shutdown MORE (D-Vt.) and Mike LeeMichael (Mike) Shumway LeeGrassroots political participation is under attack in Utah and GOP is fighting back Romney sworn in as senator Both sides play blame game on first day of shutdown MORE (R-Utah), under which phone records would still be collected but would be held by providers themselves, unless the NSA requests call records pertaining to a specific national security threat; or (3) letting the NSA program continue as is, as championed by Senate Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellRomney calls on Steve King to resign after comments on white supremacy Don't underestimate the power of nationwide outrage born from financial desperation Top Dem introduces short-term spending bills to reopen government MORE (R-Ky.). 

For anybody who values the right of privacy or respects the rule of law, rejecting McConnell’s approach should be a no-brainer. As Leahy and Lee observed after the court ruling: “Congress should not reauthorize a bulk collection program that the court has found to violate the law.”

It’s also worth noting: We’d never know what the NSA was up to were it not for documents released by former government contractor Edward Snowden. He was right. The government was acting illegally. It’s time for the Obama administration to stop treating Snowden like a criminal — and allow him to return to the United States and be recognized as the courageous and patriotic whistleblower he is. 

Press is host of “The Bill Press Show” on Free Speech TV and author of The Obama Hate Machine.