Friday, May 1, 2015

Revising the Patriot Act

In Washington, the defense hawks who have staunchly defended government spying are reeling as an alliance of liberal Democrats and Tea Party Republicans, supported by the White House, is set to force major changes in the Patriot Act:
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.

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.
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.

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.


David said...

I've always suspected that part of the reason is a calculation that, if Obama ordered the NSA to stop collection, there would be a flood of leaks, and books published by disgruntled ex-agents, about what a disaster that would be, and how many plots were foiled because of the surveillance, and how Obama doesn't love America, and so on. The issue would become ragging on Obama, instead of civil liberties vs. security--and at every press conference, he'd have to answer questions like, "What about the allegations that your recent order to the NSA will encourage ISIS to try a new 9/11?," ad nauseum. Ultimately, he would have had to back down, and surveillance would be stronger than ever politically. I think he's smart to have waited for a political tipping-point.

John said...

You're probably right.

pootrsox said...

I agree with David's analysis, and in fact had come over to the Comment section to make much the same argument.