NSA Debate Brings Bad Guys to the Fore

On Monday, the executive office of the president urged the U.S. Senate to pass the USA Freedom Act, a bill marked up by Senator Patrick Leahy’s Judiciary Committee. The bill is intended to rein in the National Security Agency and to assist the American tech industry which is reeling from lost sales resulting from the revelations of Edward Snowden. Tech firms have been joined by groups as diverse as the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Rifle Association in lobbying senators to vote in the affirmative.

The pushback isn’t subtle. In a Wall Street Journal opinion piece with the headline NSA Reform That Only ISIS Could Love, former NSA and CIA Director Michael Hayden and Bush Era Attorney General Michael Mukasey argue that these modest reforms will get us all killed. In the Washington Post, J-Rube exposes herself as a sycophant and a parrot for the worst elements of the Intelligence Community and launches a withering attack on both Ted Cruz (for co-sponsoring the bill) and Rand Paul (for opposing it as inadequate).

It also can be a clarifying moment for Republicans. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who has railed against the program, sued the administration to stop it and falsely implied it allows unrestricted listening in on our calls, claims the bill does not go far enough. Think about that. When it comes to anti-terror surveillance he is to the left of Obama and Leahy. So much for his claim to be a mainstream Republican on national security.

Meanwhile, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) – who has also dabbled in anti-surveillance hysteria and seeks to grab some of the far-right presidential primary vote- is supporting the bill along with Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Il.) and the ACLU. He should explain why Hayden and Mukasey are wrong.

There are several hurdles to clear before this bill can become a law. First, there will be a cloture vote with the requirement of 60 votes to begin debate. Then there will be a contentious amendment process in which there will be efforts to strengthen and weaken the legislation. The White House seems to support an effort to eliminate a provision that would create a public advocate at the FISA Court. Assuming the bill does eventually pass the Senate, it will have to be reconciled with a House version of the bill that is so weak on reform that the tech industry withdrew its support for it.

Senator Leahy is responsible for pushing this debate now, at a time when it certainly could be swept under the rug. He’s about to lose his gavel on the Senate Judiciary Committee and he wants something to show for his term as chairman. Passing the bill in the Senate won’t be much of a show if it can’t be reconciled with the House version, and the final product is probably going to satisfy no one. Will it be better than nothing?

Sadly, that might not be the case.

But the debate will, at least, make it easy to identify the enemies of privacy and oversight.

[Cross-posted at Booman Tribune]

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.