Wednesday, January 29, 2020
Jan. 29, 2020

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In Our View: What’s in a Bill’s Name?

USA Freedom Act hides behind 'fog of legalese' to give NSA more spying power

The Columbian

It is a truism of congressional subterfuge that the name of a certain piece of legislation often can be a misnomer.

The No Child Left Behind Act failed to provide funding for the education reform it sought to enact, and therefore left many children behind. The Patriot Act traded some freedoms in exchange for national security, arguably undermining things that patriots care about. The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act might prove to be neither protective nor affordable — we’ll lean on the side that says it is still being played out. But suffice it to say that fancy names for bills often are designed to obfuscate what the law actually would do.

Therefore, we have some reservations about the USA Freedom Act that is pending in Congress. Now, USA Freedom Act sounds innocuous enough, but the full name of the bill is Uniting and Strengthening America by Fulfilling Rights and Ending Eavesdropping, Dragnet-Collection and Online Monitoring Act. And, forgive our cynicism, but if somebody is trying that hard to sell a bill to the public then we are a little suspicious. So is Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore.

“The language of the bill is so broad, so extraordinarily vague, that it basically could be used to collect all the phone records from a particular area code or all the credit card records from a particular state,” Wyden said. Or, as Christopher Eutaw of Wall Street Daily explained, “The bill was modified at the 11th hour, and privacy advocates say that the amended version does nothing to stop the NSA from continuing to operate with impunity.”

That would tend to scuttle the purpose of the bill, which was introduced last year as details of the National Security Agency’s spying on Americans came to light. As the NSA’s data collection became a cause celebre, lawmakers were quick to jump on the bandwagon. The proposed law has 150 co-sponsors in the House of Representatives, and its companion legislation has 21 co-sponsors in the Senate (neither Washington senator has signed on). It recently passed the House by a vote of 303-121 (Rep. Jaime Herrera-Beutler, R-Camas, voted in favor) and will be considered by the Senate this summer.

In a piece for The Washington Post, author and terrorism expert H.L. Pohlman wrote, “The revised bill would basically allow the NSA to continue to obtain telephone call detail records with even fewer restrictions than in the past. … Indeed, a cynical interpretation of all this suggests that those who crafted the new USA Freedom Act want to give the illusion of reform while preserving (even extending) the NSA’s current activities behind a fog of legalese.”

This might or might not be a big deal. Details of the NSA’s data collection last year sparked much debate and were greeted with sky-is-falling proclamations from civil libertarians. But the fact is that weighing national security against individual freedom always has required a delicate balancing act. A poll conducted earlier this year by USA Today/Pew Research Center found that public opinion had shifted slightly to opposition of the NSA’s data collection and that a vast majority of respondents (70 percent vs. 26 percent) said Americans should not have to give up privacy and freedom in order to be safe from terrorism.

A single terrorist attack could shift those opinions back in the other direction. Congress has every reason to seek the balance between collecting phone data of average Americans and protecting the privacy of those Americans. But in striving to forge that balance, the public deserves better than the USA Freedom Act.