One of the most striking things about the trove of classified National Security Agency files that Edward Snowden made public last year is that the agency was mostly doing what it was told. Its spying operations had generally been vetted by lawyers, tolerated by Congress, endorsed by the White House and approved by a court.
The public was alarmed and wanted action, but it wasn’t clear who to blame. Reforming the NSA, it turned out, would require reforming the larger legal regimes that enabled it — something that seemed beyond the capacity of this Congress.
Until last week, when Sen. Harry Reid announced that a bill called the USA Freedom Act would soon be up for a vote. The bill would end some of the NSA’s most objectionable behavior and subject it to improved oversight. Its passage would represent some substantial and unexpected progress in Washington.
Most crucially, the bill would end the bulk collection of U.S. phone records, an invasive and largely ineffective practice. Both an independent review board and the NSA’s privacy watchdog found that it hasn’t been essential to the fight against terrorism. The NSA would still be able to search records held by phone companies during an investigation, but it would need a court order to do so.
The bill would also make the NSA’s oversight somewhat more transparent. Major decisions by the court that oversees the agency would be made public in redacted form. A civil-liberties panel would be able to challenge some of the government’s assertions before the court.
Yet some caution is still in order. The NSA is adept at exploiting imprecise language, and there’s a danger that it could interpret some provisions of the bill to be more permissive than Congress intends. Preventing that will require vigilance from agency overseers.
Remarkably, civil-liberties groups, Silicon Valley and the intelligence community have all expressed support for the USA Freedom Act, making it possibly the only thing in the world they will ever agree on. The bill offers Congress an opportunity to end an intrusive and ineffective spying program. And it would help restore the public’s faith in its intelligence agencies. It should become law.