Opinion Columns & Blogs

Objectionable NSA actions should finally be reined in

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.

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.

The bill would also ... 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, 2001, 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, R-Kentucky. 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.