The NSA’s domestic snooping

There’s a Northwest thread that knits together leadership on civil liberties and birddogging abuses by America’s intelligence community. Idaho Sen. Frank Church led the charge in the 1970s, throwing light on a scofflaw culture.

The Church Committee issued 14 reports and brought into focus CIA-sponsored assassinations, black-bag FBI break-ins, and warrantless spying on Americans, a practice that extended back decades.

After 9/11, an anything-goes intelligence culture was reignited, with the National Security Agency operating just as Church described the CIA — “a rogue elephant.” Republican Sen. Barry Goldwater was more colorful. “Like a wild jackass,” he said at the time.

The USA Freedom Act, co-sponsored by Washington Reps. Suzan DelBene and Rick Larsen, is a necessary salve to the NSA’s privacy-shredding overreach. In a bipartisan vote Wednesday, the House Judiciary Committee approved the Freedom Act. It’s not perfect, but it’s a constructive start. Now, the full House needs to step up and vote.

The bill includes elimination of the bulk collection of data, Section 215 of the Patriot Act. The Freedom Act demands that “tangible things sought are relevant to an authorized investigation into international terrorism or clandestine intelligence activities and pertain to (1) a foreign power or agent of a foreign power.” Combined with giving the heave-ho to information about Americans “accidentally” collected through PRISM, the James-Bond-ish-sounding data-mining initiative, these original sections of the bill shouldn’t be watered down.

DelBene, a Judiciary Committee member, shepherded an amendment that bolsters transparency by ensuring additional disclosure by private companies when the feds squeeze them for data. The language was pushed by the high-tech sector, which felt pigeonholed as privacy-bending dupes after revelations by former intelligence analyst Edward Snowden.

“The secret government surveillance programs that involved the bulk collection of American communications records are nothing short of a violation of individual privacy and civil liberties,” DelBene said in a statement. “As the bill moves forward, I’m committed to continue refining the bill to strengthen provisions to improve transparency, accountability and privacy protections.”

The pretext of national security has been used and abused for decades. In the information age, the potential for government overreach is even greater. That’s why breathing life back into Church’s legacy, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court and other checks on arbitrary power, is timely and essential.

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