On Thursday, a bill that would overhaul the Patriot Act and curtail the so-called metadata surveillance exposed by Edward J. Snowden was overwhelmingly passed by the House Judiciary Committee and was heading to almost certain passage in that chamber this month.Love the way the Times refers to this as the "post-Snowden era." I hope Obama pardons him as one of the last acts of his term.
An identical bill in the Senate — introduced with the support of five Republicans — is gaining support over the objection of Senator Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky, who is facing the prospect of his first policy defeat since ascending this year to majority leader.
The push for reform is the strongest demonstration yet of a decade-long shift from a singular focus on national security at the expense of civil liberties to a new balance in the post-Snowden era.
Under the bipartisan bills in the House and Senate, the Patriot Act would be changed to prohibit bulk collection, and sweeps that had operated under the guise of so-called National Security Letters issued by the F.B.I. would end. The data would instead be stored by the phone companies themselves, and could be accessed by intelligence agencies only after approval of the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court.
It is also interesting to think about Obama's role in this. His people are supporting these revisions, and have signaled he would sign the House bill. But he doesn't need a law; this is an area in which he absolutely could proceed by executive order if he wanted to. The NSA works for him, and as their boss he could just order them to stop collecting this information. (The Patriot Act says the government can do these things, it doesn't say we have to.) After all, he ordered the CIA to stop waterboarding people without waiting for Congress. So why hasn't he? Some possibilities: maybe he prefers to act through Congress and has only resorted to executive actions when Congressional action seems impossible; since revisions to the Patriot Act clearly are possible, he waits. Or maybe he really doesn't care much about this issue and has just gone with the political flow. Or maybe there is an underlying problem, that the President has much less control over the secret parts of the government that we would like to imagine, and it is actually quite difficult for him to get the CIA and the NSA to follow his orders, so he thinks he needs the support of Congress to really get the NSA to mend its ways.