Work to rein in NSA mischief

There are times, albeit rare, when a gridlocked U.S. House of Representatives does something meaningful. On Thursday, the House passed an amendment to the Defense Appropriations bill that zeroes out funding for (some) National Security Agency mischief.

It’s a baby step to safeguard civil liberties — all relative in the anything-goes intelligence culture after 9/11 — but it’s a step nonetheless.

The Massie-Lofgren amendment, which earned an unexpected 293-123 vote nod, addresses the so-called “backdoor search loophole.” The amendment nixes the use of appropriated funds to enable government agencies to collect and search the communications of U.S. citizens without a warrant, using section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. Currently, the CIA and NSA can demand the alteration of tech products (!) from Google and software companies to enable surveillance.

Only two members of Washington’s Congressional delegation, Reps. Doc Hastings and Dave Reichert, voted no. Rep. Suzan DelBene, an amendment co-sponsor, wrote in a tweet, “Good news in the fight to rein in the #NSA. Last night the House passed a measure to cut funding for NSA ‘backdoors.’”

For decades, the government has used the pretext of national security to curtail the privacy of individual Americans. Leadership on civil liberties and birddogging abuses by America’s intelligence community is bound by a Northwest thread. 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, warrantless spying on Americans, and the “HTLINGUAL” program that opened U.S. mail.

“This is a sensible limitation that not only improves transparency of surveillance practices, but also promotes security by avoiding the creation of potential vulnerabilities that can later be exploited by criminals and other bad actors,” writes the Bill of Rights Defense Committee and other parties in a joint letter to members of the Congressional leadership.

The Massie-Lofgren amendment may be too enlightened, and many assume the U.S. Senate will water it down. That was the case with the USA Freedom Act. Last year, Rep. Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., introduced the USA Freedom Act to rein in the NSA’s ends-justify-the-means MO. It ended in disappointment.

In the information age, the potential for government overreach is greater than ever. Harmonizing the public interest and national security shouldn’t be mission impossible.

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