Udall should press for legislation to curtail secret NSA surveillance
Edward Snowden’s revelation of widespread secret government surveillance of Americans has brought new urgency to Sen. Mark Udall’s efforts to amend the Patriot Act.
Frustrated in the past by secrecy that made it difficult to speak publicly about the collection of American telephone and electronics records by the National Security Agency, Udall wrote to his constituents after Snowden blew the whistle, “Finally, the national conversation can begin, with Americans knowing the facts.”
As Udall described the leak, “Several days ago, a series of news reports disclosed for the first time the breadth of the U.S. government’s surveillance of American citizens in the fight against terrorism ... The most troubling reports describe how the federal government collects information about millions of telephone calls made by Americans, including who they call and when they call.”
Though Senate leaders in both parties seem reluctant to pursue investigations, this is the best opportunity Udall has had since joining the Senate Intelligence Committee in 2011 to offer explicit reasons for raising the alarm about the extent of government surveillance of American citizens. That year, Udall and his senior colleague Ron Wyden, D-Ore., in a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder, accused the Justice Department of misleading the public with their classified interpretation of the Patriot Act.
“Americans will eventually and inevitably come to learn about the gap that currently exists between the public’s understanding of government surveillance authorities and the official, classified interpretation of these authorities,” the letter to Holder predicted.
That day has arrived. The Guardian and The Washington Post, after interviews with former CIA employee and government security contractor Snowden, confirmed two of the government’s most secret domestic surveillance programs.
One program enables the government to collect millions of U.S. phone records in a dragnet for calls with suspected foreign terrorists.
The second program allows the government access to data held by American Internet companies to troll for suspicious communications that originate overseas. In the process, domestic emails are also collected, though supposedly not read.
Udall does not object to the government collecting information that it deems essential to national security. He is, however, implacably opposed to the secrecy of the NSA surveillance programs.
“I did everything short of leaking classified information” to stop the practice, Udall told The Denver Post last week. “I did everything in my power to bring attention” to the secret domestic surveillance.
Snowden showed no such scruples. Whether his motives were noble or ignoble, he has broken the rule of silence.
Not only has the Snowden episode energized the crusade for transparency in NSA domestic programs, it seems to have shaken Udall’s confidence in the efficacy of the programs in general. After NSA Director Gen. Keith Alexander claimed that the NSA surveillance programs had helped prevent “dozens” of terrorist attacks, Udall said, “After years of review, we believe statements that this very broad Patriot Act collection has been a critical tool in protecting the nation do not appear to hold up under scrutiny.”
White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough said Sunday that President Obama “welcomes a public debate on this question because he says ... we have to find the right balance, and we will not keep ourselves on a perpetual war footing.”
As blogger Darwin Long stated on Policymic, “People as diverse as Glenn Beck, Rand Paul and Michael Moore are in agreement on one side … and Nancy Pelosi, Dick Cheney, and Lindsey Graham can be found on the other side. This diversity of opinion ... points out the absolute need for a national discussion on the matter.”
Udall and Wyden plan to introduce legislation to limit the authority of the NSA to collect data on Americans. Udall says the bill will “strike the right balance in protecting our homeland while also respecting our Constitution and Americans’ widely cherished privacy rights.”
Udall and Wyden should press for a national debate despite opposition from Senate leadership. The nation needs clarity, and this puts Udall in a leadership position on an important bipartisan issue as the 2014 election season draws near.