There is a guy, a famous guy, who lives now in a Russian airport or something, no one is really sure, but everyone in the media (and lots of people not in the media) cannot stop fighting and arguing about this guy. Some people say he is a jerk and crazy and bad and others say he is a hero and super cool. Either way, mean jerk or cool hero, this guy that everyone won't shut up about is actually responsible for the first major public displays of Congressional opposition to the unchecked surveillance state in 35 years or so.
Congress has always had a handful of privacy advocates and true civil libertarians. But for many years in political Washington it has been considered foolish and perhaps a bit treasonous to suggest that our intelligence agencies are even slightly overzealous in their collection of all information possible about everything on the globe. That is still the general consensus, but as McClatchy's Washington Bureau wrote on Friday, there are suddenly a bunch of members of Congress who actually want to rein in the NSA.
One member of Congress is threatening to use procedural sabotage to sink the major defense spending bill the House will consider this week unless his amendment ending NSA collection of Americans' telephone metadata is allowed a vote. Lawmakers are preparing bills that will require more transparency from intelligence agencies and some are even trying to amend Section 215 of the Patriot Act, the broadly written statute that gives American intelligence agencies the authority to secretly collect business data about the doings of American citizens, so long as the government promises that it's related, somehow, to terrorism.
That section has now passed Congress multiple times. These people should've known what they were voting for. (Indeed, most defenders of the NSA and FBI have made this argument as well: Congress legalized this, so they shouldn't complain.) But some very "mainstream" members of Congress are now making it sound like they might actually consider not extending these essentially unchecked authorities forever:
The NSA is not acting rogue, Himes added. “They are acting pursuant to very clear authority under Section 215 of the Patriot Act,” [Rep. Jim] Himes said. But, he said, “that law is too broadly worded and being interpreted a little broadly.” Section 215 provides authority for the surveillance programs.
It is not just Democrats talking like this either:
But Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., recalled that when he chaired the House Judiciary Committee in 2006, “I was not aware of any dragnet collection of phone records when the Patriot Act was reauthorized.” If he had, he said, “I would have publicly opposed such abuse.”
He cautioned the White House that the mood could turn against it. “If the administration continues to turn a deaf ear to the American public’s outcry, Section 215 will not have the necessary support to be reauthorized in 2015,” Sensenbrenner said. “. . . The proper balance between privacy and security has been lost.”
Let's give Rep. Sensenbrenner the benefit of the doubt and accept that he did not intend to give the NSA and the FBI the authority to do what we now know they are doing, even though privacy and civil liberties advocates did warn everyone that this is what Sensenbrenner and his colleagues had done.
Many of the new proposed reforms to intelligence law are small-bore, most of the big ones don't have much of a chance of passing, and most of the most powerful members of Congress are still opposed to change. But this is still a major break from the longtime status quo.
The last time a significant number of Washington politicians favored additional restrictions on intelligence-gathering and surveillance powers was in the immediate aftermath of the Church Committee reports, in the mid-1970s. Since then, Congress has practically abandoned its oversight power over the intelligence communities, and it's only gotten worse since 9/11. Fighting terrorism trumped privacy every time Congress was asked to expand government spying powers. For much of the last dozen years, civil libertarians weren't just ignored by the political establishment, they were vilified. When Democrats took full control of Congress, they still rubber-stamped Bush's surveillance programs.
This is how it's worked: Congress passed bills expanding the government's intelligence powers with huge bipartisan majorities. Votes in the House would have a handful (or a lot of) liberal Democratic "NAYS" against the "YEAS" of every single Republican in the chamber besides Ron Paul. (The Democrats have generally been more consistent on these issues than people give them credit for. Most party leaders and many moderate Democrats never embraced civil liberties, except maybe with vague rhetoric, even in the Bush years.)
That basic breakdown -- all Republicans and a chunk of Democrats, including party leadership, always in favor of more surveillance -- didn't even shift after Democrats retook the presidency, when fighting the White House on surveillance would've made political sense for the opposition party.
This has very suddenly changed. Now, with Paul out of Congress, Rep. Justin Amash, a Paul-style libertarianish Republican from Michigan, has largely taken over as the Republican who opposes the surveillance state. But Amash actually has a few allies in his party, which Paul almost never did. This is the best political atmosphere for privacy in a generation.
So what happened, exactly? Well, the American people learned a bunch of scary sounding stuff about how much data the NSA is collecting, on everyone. They learned this because of illegal leaks of classified information, to reporters, from the guy everyone is fighting about. Everyone can keep fighting about the guy, I guess, but no one can now say that the guy's leaks were entirely gratuitous. Because before the leaks, people who were alarmed at what the intelligence agencies could be up to were ignored and politicians who had pretty good notions of what they could be up to (or who could've learned what they were up to if they cared to) weren't concerned.
Even the Obama administration, which would like to lock the guy in jail forever, is suddenly talking a lot more about these programs, and promising more transparency, and giving more briefings and explaining more details about intelligence operations. They knew about all this stuff before, because they're the ones doing it, but for the administration all these programs didn't seem bad or or worth explaining to people until Americans everywhere learned about them.
Much of official Washington now agrees, at the least, that Americans ought to know more about what secret Washington is up to. They had to be forced into that position. Officially they consider leaks of classified information dangerous, irresponsible and treasonous, but they've also tacitly admitted that they're apparently necessary.