Reader's view, privacy: Government data collection shows danger of Patriot Act

June 14, 2013 

During the past week, we've heard about a series of major violations of our civil liberties, including the extremely alarming news that the National Security Agency is collecting the telephone records of tens of millions of American customers of Verizon.

This wholesale snooping on innocent Americans is an unacceptable violation of one of our most basic freedoms - the right to privacy and to be free from government surveillance - and one of many unintended but predictable consequences of the USA Patriot Act.

I proudly voted against reauthorizing the Patriot Act three times because of its potential for abuse, and more people are starting to see that abuse. Even former Vice President Al Gore - not someone I normally agree with - had the right response to the NSA report, tweeting: "In digital era, privacy must be a priority. Is it just me, or is secret blanket surveillance obscenely outrageous?" It's not just you, Al. I agree.

Of course, what's happening with the NSA is just the latest example of the government abusing its power. We've all heard about the IRS scandals and the Justice Department's wiretapping of Fox News reporter James Rosen. Then, just this past Friday, it was reported that the NSA and the FBI are tapping directly into the central servers of nine leading U.S. Internet companies, including Google, Facebook, and YouTube.

When thinking about all of these scandals, I'm reminded of what James Madison wrote in Federalist 51: "If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself."

In recent years, many members of both parties have forgotten Mr. Madison's lesson – that government powers must be limited because governments, by their very nature, have a hard time "controlling themselves."

During the Bush years, many Republicans ignored that truth, and in the Obama era, many Democrats have ignored it, too. What's happening with the NSA and other agencies should correct the misguided idea that it's OK to give the government more powers so long as the "right" party is in power. Because parties change. And, to quote, Madison again, "enlightened statesmen will not always be at the helm."

For all of these reasons and more, I voted against the Patriot Act, which was written in such a sweeping way that it opened the door for the NSA to invade the privacy of millions of Americans. That is because the Patriot Act's Section 215 allows the FBI to seek the production of "tangible things" to obtain foreign intelligence and to protect against clandestine intelligence activities, but since the statute does not require that either the caller or recipient of the call be a foreign agent or located abroad, you can see how the FBI could be tempted to collect broad swaths of data concerning Americans' telephone calls to detect patterns of activity, as many analysts suggest may have happened in this case.

That is why on June 6, I joined several of my House colleagues in sending a letter to FBI Director Mueller and NSA Director Alexander requesting more information concerning their data collection activities.

Raul Labrador, R-Idaho is a member of the U.S. House Judiciary Committee.

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