In their cogent op-ed, "End the NSA Dragnet, Now" in the New York Times today, Senators Ron Wyden (D-Ore), Mark Udall (D-Colo), and Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) argue in opposition to an authoritarian bill proposed by the Senate Intelligence Committee that would actually ratify the power of the National Security Agency to spy on Americans. To their great credit, the three senators have proposed legislation that would go a long way toward restoring American's Fourth Amendment privacy protections against NSA surveillance. From the op-ed:
THE framers of the Constitution declared that government officials had no power to seize the records of individual Americans without evidence of wrongdoing, and they embedded this principle in the Fourth Amendment. The bulk collection of Americans' telephone records — so-called metadata — by the National Security Agency is, in our view, a clear case of a general warrant that violates the spirit of the framers' intentions. This intrusive program was authorized under a secret legal process by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, so for years American citizens did not have the knowledge needed to challenge the infringement of their privacy rights.
Our first priority is to keep Americans safe from the threat of terrorism. If government agencies identify a suspected terrorist, they should absolutely go to the relevant phone companies to get that person's phone records. But this can be done without collecting the records of millions of law-abiding Americans. We recall Benjamin Franklin's famous admonition that those who would give up essential liberty in the pursuit of temporary safety will lose both and deserve neither.
The usefulness of the bulk collection program has been greatly exaggerated. We have yet to see any proof that it provides real, unique value in protecting national security. In spite of our repeated requests, the N.S.A. has not provided evidence of any instance when the agency used this program to review phone records that could not have been obtained using a regular court order or emergency authorization.
Despite this, the surveillance reform bill recently ratified by the Senate Intelligence Committee would explicitly permit the government to engage in dragnet collection as long as there were rules about when officials could look at these phone records. It would also give intelligence agencies wide latitude to conduct warrantless searches for Americans' phone calls and emails.
This is not the true reform that poll after poll has shown the American people want. It is preserving business as usual. When the Bill of Rights was adopted, it established that Americans' papers and effects should be seized only when there was specific evidence of suspicious activity. It did not permit government agencies to issue general warrants as long as records seized were reviewed with the permission of senior officials.
Thanks to Edward Snowden, Americans now know that the NSA and other federal police and spy agencies were in the process of constructing what could easily have evolved into what former NSA cryptanalyst William Binney described as a "turnkey totalitarian state."
The time to stop it is now. Readers who are so moved can make their concerns known by contacting their members of Congress and the Senate.
The whole New York Times op-ed is well worth reading.
See also reason.tv's "What We Saw at the Anti-NSA 'Stop Watching Us' Rally" in Washington, DC below: