Accountability and surveillance
By Rep. Randy Forbes
September 24, 2013
There are certain natural liberties that Americans have, simply as citizens of this nation, that set us apart from many others in the world. One of those is privacy. Privacy is intrinsically linked to other freedoms: the freedom of expression, of assembly and association, the freedom to acquire and use property.
So when Edward Snowden leaked information about the collection of American communication data by the National Security Agency, it reignited a fierce debate about the role of the government in today's world of technology and terrorism.
Under current law, the NSA has limited authority to gather electronic information. Events over the past few months have demonstrated that the agency has built a surveillance network that reaches far beyond the scope of its authority. Americans quickly learned that Snowden had unearthed a five-year collection of "telephony metadata" that logged the origin, destination, time and duration of billions of phone calls made in the United States.
The issue of government surveillance became personal to many Americans for the first time as word of NSA's overreach kept coming. New reports in August showed that the NSA has broken privacy rules and overstepped its authority thousands of times since 2008, and that it misrepresented the scope of its efforts to the secret court that oversees government surveillance.
Encasing all of this are the harsh realities of our world today. We live in a post 9/11 society. There are those who actively seek to do our nation harm. Many intelligence programs are meant to keep Americans safe from a very real terrorist threat. But we also have a need for public trust. Indeed, the need for security does not mean the government is off the hook in its obligation to respect individual privacy.
The Fourth Amendment says that "the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated." This provision is clear in its intent: Americans deserve privacy just as much as they deserve protection. Our Constitution demands that these rights cannot and must not be mutually exclusive.
I share the deeply held concerns of those who fear that government has become increasingly intrusive and disrespectful of the American people's fundamental rights and liberties. The security and safety of our nation must not come at the cost of our freedoms or individual liberties as American citizens.
I strongly support providing a legal framework that reassures all Americans that our rights are being respected, while at the same time taking appropriate steps to ensure our security. We need to strengthen oversight so we can continually ask important questions. How much government monitoring is too much? What oversight mechanisms are in place? Do they need to be strengthened? How do we protect these liberties against the pursuit of security?
As it stands now, when the secret court responsible for overseeing surveillance (the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court) reviews a decision, the Attorney General must determine if the issue is an appropriate interpretation of current law. Only if the Attorney General deems the decision "significant" must the information be shared with Congress. Otherwise, the information isn't required to be shared. This leaves a lot up to interpretation, and I believe we need an extra layer of oversight.
Last week, I introduced a bipartisan bill that will provide much-needed accountability to a system that has run aground of its constitutional authority.
U.S. Reps. Mike Thompson, D-Calif.; Frank LoBiondo, R-N.J.; Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill. and I came together on this issue because we believe the oversight of our intelligence community transcends partisan barriers. The Intelligence Oversight and Accountability Act (HR 3103) requires that the Attorney General share all FISC decisions with Congress.
Essentially, it removes the subjective layer that exists between what Congress should or shouldn't review. The result will be increased oversight of the secret court and of intelligence community programs overall.
The bill comes at a crucial time when many Americans no longer see their government as a force for good, but rather as an invasive institution that has abused the powers its citizens bestowed on it. Freedom is costly. But we don't have to pay for it on privacy's tab.
Randy Forbes is the U.S. congressman from Virginia's Fourth District.