Curtail NSA overreach; Massie, Yarmuth on right side of history

July 31, 2013 

If President Barack Obama lobbied as hard for his economic agenda as he did to kill an amendment to curtail the National Security Agency's overreaching surveillance, more people might have jobs.

The bipartisan amendment to the defense appropriations bill, voted on by the House last week and proposed by Rep. Justin Amash, R-Wis., and cosponsored by Rep. Thomas Massie of Kentucky, would have prohibited the NSA from using its funds for bulk surveillance of Americans' communications.

The Constitution does not permit a dragnet. The proposal reaffirmed our Fourth Amendment rights to privacy unless the government produces a specific warrant issued on probable cause.

Despite their claims that the expansive surveillance programs are constitutional (based on opinions that are, of course, classified), supporters launched a frantic effort to kill a bill reasserting constitutional protections.

The president, who rarely directly intervenes in congressional affairs, teamed up with Speaker John Boehner and House Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi to try to squelch the bill before it even came up for a vote.

Gen. Keith Alexander, head of the NSA, was dispatched to peddle a false choice between civil liberties and national security.

The White House press secretary criticized the amendment as "not the product of an informed, open or deliberative process," which took some gall, considering that he was defending secret programs justified by secret laws issued by secret courts.

The amendment failed narrowly in a 205-217 vote that divided both parties.

Democrats narrowly favored limiting the NSA's activities, 111 to 83, while most Republicans voted against the proposal, 94 to 134.

Refreshingly, Kentucky Reps. John Yarmuth, D-Louisville, and Massie, R-Vanceburg, who come from very different political persuasions, voted to reel in the NSA. The rest of Kentucky's delegation, all Republican, voted against the amendment.

With more lawmakers voicing skepticism in the executive branch's "just trust us" policy, diminishing public support and congressional testimony today by Glenn Greenwald, the columnist for The Guardian who first broke the NSA scandal, some needed limits on the president's excesses seem possible.

Obama, once a constitutional law professor, must certainly understand the necessity of checks and balances on intelligence activities. His assurances that the troubling activities comply with the law are not enough.

Actual congressional oversight, and not just limited briefings to select members of intelligence committees, should be the next step.

Also, the administration should, at a minimum, release the legal opinions justifying the dragnet surveillance. There is little reason for these to remain classified. Al-Qaida would gain little advantage from learning that the U.S. is a system of laws.

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