In the wake of whistleblower Edward Snowden's revelations about the activities of the National Security Agency (NSA), Senators Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), Mark Udall (D-Colo.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), and Rand Paul (R-Ky) have introduced legislation that would end the NSA's bulk collection of Americans' phone records.
According to a press release from Wyden's office, the legislation "will amend the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act to end dragnet domestic surveillance and other unjustified intrusions on Americans' constitutional rights, make improvements to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC), and provide for greater transparency from government entities and the private sector," Reuters reports. In addition to banning bulk collection of Americans' records, this bill would "create the position of 'constitutional advocate' to represent the public in the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court that oversees the eavesdropping programs. And it would let Americans affected by the eavesdropping sue for damages in U.S. courts and allow companies to disclose more information about cooperation with government surveillance." A previous amendment in the House to restrict the spying powers of the NSA was defeated in July by a margin of 217 to 205.
NSA Director General Keith Alexander claims that curbing the NSA's power in such a way would be dangerous. "We need our nation to understand why we need these tools, and what those tools mean to civil liberties and privacy and what they mean to defending this country," he said. Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) is writing an alternative bill that would allow for greater transparency. However, the Feinstein bill would create far less sweeping reform of the NSA.
Even if civil libertarians in Congress succeed in passing a bill that limits NSA powers, there is no guarantee that the historically rogue NSA will follow the law. In 1975, Idaho Senator Frank Church conducted an investigation of the NSA and warned if a dictator ever took over, the NSA "could enable it to impose total tyranny, and there would be no way to fight back." Long before the Snowden revelations and long before the Bush-era warrantless wiretapping, the NSA engaged in widespread illegal surveillance of Americans. Under Operation Shamrock, telegraph companies turned over all their overseas traffic to the NSA on a daily basis for 30 years beginning in 1945. During the 1960s, the FBI demanded that the NSA monitor the communications of antiwar activists, civil rights leaders, and drug dealers. This led to Minaret, a watch list of international telephone calls and telegrams of American citizens collected by the NSA between 1967 and 1973. President Richard Nixon used this data to build his infamous "enemies list" of 75,000 American citizens including Martin Luther King, Jane Fonda, Joan Baez, and Dr. Benjamin Spock.
The ultra-secretive NSA is nearly impossible for Congress to meaningfully supervise. With its advanced technology including its new Utah Data Center, the NSA has become a monster too ferocious for the government to control. No single piece of legislation will lessen the dangers of privacy and freedom. What is required is a radical restructuring of America's spy agencies.