North Carolina’s Sen. Richard Burr, chairman of the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee, stands by the National Security Agency’s bulk collection of phone data, something under flamboyant but credible fire by Kentucky’s Sen. Rand Paul. Burr invokes Sept. 11, 2001, when he talks about the gathering of data as “very effective at keeping America safe.”
And the senator insists the NSA isn’t out to invade the privacy of Americans, as Paul believes is entirely possible. Burr also has of late said, notably on conservative Fox News, that he’s very concerned about the possibility of a terrorist attack on the United States.
The Patriot Act, passed into law in October 2001, gave the government considerable powers in areas of surveillance in the name of going after suspected terrorists. The atmosphere surrounding the passage of the law, an understandable state of panic at the time following the terrorists’ destruction of the World Trade Center towers in New York City, made questions about invasion of privacy and the protection of constitutional freedoms difficult to ask.
Members of Congress did not want to appear to oppose something that proponents said was necessary to prevent attacks. And though the mastermind, Osama bin Laden, is dead and there have been no further attacks on that scale, there remains, to be sure, a threat of terrorism.
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But the question is, has the NSA’s surveillance been effective enough not to warrant the valid questions about whether it grants government investigators too much latitude in their surveillance of people?
Burr’s entirely comfortable with it, saying that the government isn’t looking at anyone it shouldn’t look at and that safeguards are in place.
But Paul, in a 10-hour speech on the Senate floor, begged to differ. The senator, a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, isn’t alone. Working with him to try to block legislation to extend the NSA’s authority is Oregon Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden.
And while his methods of opposing the extension might have been unorthodox in the formal confines of the U.S. Senate, the senator makes some valid points.
He has invoked the excesses of the FBI’s investigations and wiretapping of civil rights demonstrators and Vietnam war protesters. And he believes the bulk collection of phone data represents an unconstitutional excess.
A June 1 deadline for renewal of the Patriot Act is approaching, and it’s in that law that the NSA is granted its authority. A House bill already passed would curb some of the NSA’s authority, but Paul wants to do more and indicates he would let the agency’s authority to gather bulk phone records expire without too much worry. Polls indicate that Americans are inclined to narrow the Patriot Act a bit.
Paul is in his own way raising some valid objections to the NSA’s broad powers and the preservation of them. Civil liberties are to be treasured and protected and must not be trimmed or ignored by politicians who just don’t want to be labeled as anti-national security.
The vehemence of Paul’s likely opponents in the GOP presidential campaign when they blast his position is itself politically convenient. It’s far easier to rip Paul as putting the nation’s security at risk than it is to have a serious debate about whether there are parts of the Patriot Act that, approaching 15 years after the New York attacks, need to be re-examined.