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Although ideological obstructionism in Congress over federal finances has led to the first government shutdown in 17 years, it’s worth remembering that there is one issue where bipartisanship still holds — reining in the surveillance state.
In July, Rep. Justin Amash, R-Mich., and I led an effort to defund one piece of our ever-expanding intelligence-industrial complex — the ongoing collection of phone records, “metadata,” by the National Security Agency. Although our amendment fell just short, what happened on the House floor that day constitutes a turning point in our efforts to reclaim our civil liberties.
I say this for several reasons. The program itself clearly exceeds the authority granted by Congress. Section 215 of the Patriot Act authorizes the government to obtain certain business records only if it can show that the information is “relevant” to an ongoing national security investigation. Though Congress clearly intended Section 215 authority to be directed at a particular individual, and related to a specific investigation, the government chooses to collect records of every phone call made in the United States. In practice, the relevance standard has lost all meaning.
Although Amash and I assembled a bipartisan coalition that was just seven votes shy of a majority, there is ample opportunity for our numbers to grow over the coming months. For example, a number of bipartisan reform bills have been introduced in Congress, including my LIBERT-E Act, there will be other amendments to authorization and appropriations bills, and we must reauthorize the Patriot Act itself in 2015.
Most importantly, the arc of history is on our side. The “red scares” following both world wars eventually led to the discrediting of officials such as Sen. Joseph McCarthy. The illegal wiretapping of political “enemies” and other Watergate-era abuses led to the adoption of a number of checks on the intelligence community. Over time, wartime deprivation of liberties are inevitably exposed. The people — and their representatives — eventually reclaim their rights.
That’s what I witnessed firsthand on the House floor on July 24. Jerrold Nadler, a liberal New Yorker, was in complete agreement with Jim Sensenbrenner, a conservative Wisconsin Republican and the principal author of the Patriot Act, that the NSA had gone “far beyond” the Congress’ intention. Zoe Lofgren, a Silicon Valley Democrat, joined with a Texas Republican, Ted Poe, in denouncing the program as lacking proper limitation or oversight.
In contrast, our opponents relied on their usual tactic to rally opposition — fear. They told us that if the Amash-Conyers amendment passed, “our country will be more vulnerable to terrorist attacks,” although the government could have continued the responsible collection of business records on a case-by-case basis. The opposition also warned that “we’ve forgotten what happened on Sept. 11,” even though the 9/11 commission concluded that the attack resulted from a failure on the part of the government to share information, rather than a lack of surveillance capability.
What we must do now is take this new spirit of bipartisan cooperation and apply it to the decaying legal architecture of the federal government’s dragnet surveillance programs. It’s not easy taking a position at odds with your party leadership or the administration. They control the bully pulpit, set the terms of the debate and can twist arms.