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Editorial: Congress Awakens; Privacy Becomes an Issue

The attempt last week in the U.S. House to rein in the National Security Agency’s vacuum-cleaner approach to collecting phone records ultimately failed, but it provides hope that a long-slumbering Congress is at last awake to the dangers inherent in the government surveillance regime imposed after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

At issue was an amendment to the annual Defense Department spending bill that would have limited NSA phone surveillance to specific targets of law enforcement investigations, as would be required under a traditional understanding of the Fourth Amendment.

What transpired was highly unusual in several respects. First was the fact that the subject was even being debated at all. Until June, when former NSA contractor Edward J. Snowden disclosed that the agency currently collects “metadata” on every phone call placed and received in the U.S., the program was so secret that members of Congress were not allowed to discuss it or even mention its existence in public. Secrecy is certainly important to national security, but it exacts a high price in terms of lack of accountability.

The second noteworthy development was the closeness of the vote. The amendment failed 217 to 205. When Snowden’s disclosures first came to light, congressional leaders and the Obama administration assured everyone that the NSA surveillance program was not only essential to the counterterrorism effort and perfectly legal, but also that Congress had been kept fully informed all along the way. The latter, in fact, may not have been true, but dissenting voices initially were restricted to what was half-jokingly referred to as the “wing nut coalition” of very conservative Republicans and the most liberal members of the Democratic caucus.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the forum for debate that the House provided last week. As public opinion polls showed Americans increasingly uneasy about the threat to privacy that the NSA program presents, more and more of their representatives began asking the pertinent questions they should have been asking all along.

By the time the vote was taken, supporters of the amendment included some members of the leadership of both parties, as well as some moderate Republicans and centrist Democrats. A pivotal moment occurred when Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner stepped to the microphone to speak. The Wisconsin Republican, one of the primary authors of the Patriot Act, a provision of which the NSA has invoked to justify the surveillance program, told the House he never intended to permit the wholesale collection of domestic phone records, nor did the legislation envision electronic dragnets that were not targeted at specific individuals in terrorism investigations. “The time has come to stop it, and the way we stop it is to approve this amendment,” Sensenbrenner said.

Ultimately, the White House and the Republican leadership in the House — talk about a strange coalition in its own right — managed to muster enough votes to turn back the amendment. But the handwriting appears to be on the wall: Legislation is being drafted by Sensenbrenner and Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., that would restrict the surveillance. The Senate Intelligence Committee is also looking for ways to alleviate the public’s concern about the program. Many people on Capitol Hill now expect some form of restrictions to be approved, perhaps as early as this fall, according to The New York Times.

This is a sea change from just a few weeks ago, and it is compelling testimony to the power information wields in a democracy. Snowden has been widely vilified as his odyssey in search of asylum continues, but without his unauthorized disclosures, this remarkable about-face would have been unthinkable.