NSA Reform Comes Down to the Wire

An opportunity to bring order to chaos.

Photographer: Thomas Coex/AFP/Getty Images

After nearly two years of disclosures about the excesses of the National Security Agency -- and after last year's failed attempt to rein them in -- Congress is on the verge of finally doing something about them. This time, the clock is ticking.

The USA Freedom Act, which would make some crucial reforms to the agency, sailed through the House last week. It has the support of the White House, the intelligence community, many civil-liberties groups and Silicon Valley. It's also sensible policy. 

Most crucially, the act would end the NSA's bulk collection of Americans' phone records, which was invasive, unpopular, ineffective and -- as a federal court ruled this month -- illegal. Now, instead of federal spooks building vast, searchable databases of your metadata, phone companies would hold on to the information and the government could demand it only after getting court approval as part of an investigation. That arrangement should ensure that the spies can do their job without relying on comprehensive domestic surveillance.

The bill would also substantially boost the NSA's transparency. It would require the Justice Department to publish unclassified summaries of major opinions by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (the secret tribunal that oversees espionage), create advisory panels that could assist the court on technical matters and advocate for civil liberties, and allow technology companies to reveal more details about the surveillance orders they receive. That would all go a long way toward righting the traditional American balance between national security and civil liberties that was upended after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Now it's the Senate's turn to push its version forward, a task that will eventually fall to Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. A similar bill failed to get through the chamber last year. Without action this time, however, a crucial section of the Patriot Act will expire June 1 -- ending not only the phone-records program but also several other counterterrorism provisions. Inexplicably, McConnell has vowed to put a bill on the floor reauthorizing the expiring provisions without any reforms at all. In so doing, he would effectively be ignoring the recent federal court decision and angering his colleagues, many of whom support reform. Given that such a bill would stand almost no chance of becoming law, it would also be an exercise in futility. 

The Senate should instead vote on the reform bill. By now it's clear that the NSA needs a sturdier set of rules to govern its invaluable work. This bill would be a big step in the right direction.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.