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The Rise and Fall of the NSA's Data Collection Program

by James Spurgeon, published

Rarely do I heap any praise on a politician. I always keep a skeptical eye toward them and am not afraid to call them out when necessary. But today, that praise is necessary. U.S. Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky (who is also a 2016 presidential candidate) was a wrecking ball in the past couple of weeks when it came to allowing certain provisions in the Patriot Act to expire.

The Patriot Act was passed by Congress out of fear in the days after the 9/11 attacks. The way it had been interpreted by the National Security Agency (NSA) was that it legally allowed them to spy on everyday Americans. Most of the time it was without a warrant, but if one was needed, the secret FISA court (authorized under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act) basically granted one each time as it only heard the government’s side.

Section 215 of the Patriot Act authorizes the government to collect “any tangible things” that the government proves are “relevant to” an investigation into suspected terrorists."

A lot of what the NSA was doing was brought to light when Edward Snowden blew the whistle on the agency's operations. I don’t consider Snowden to be a patriot or a traitor. I consider him to be an American who saw the federal government overstepping its authority and let the public know what was happening.

So if the law states that the government can collect the data, what’s the problem?

The problem is that it violates the individual's right to privacy, which is guaranteed under the Constitution. Law enforcement must request a specific warrant -- not a blanket warrant that encompasses everyone -- from an actual court -- not some secret court that the public knows nothing about nor has any defense in. If Congress really wants to do this then they need to go about the proper way of amending the Constitution to allow it.

Republicans are tearing Rand Paul apart for allowing the Patriot Act to expire. Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) went so far as to claim that it was a publicity stunt since Paul is running for president. I can’t say whether that is true or not, but it has been one of his biggest issues since he entered the Senate back in 2011.

Senator Paul may also have something else to back him up. In May, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the NSA’s bulk, warrantless collection of Americans’ phone records was illegal though stopped short of deciding its constitutionality. This came almost a year after a lower court stated that the program was “almost-Orwellian.”

“Because we find that the program exceeds the scope of what Congress has authorized, we vacate the decision below dismissing the complaint without reaching appellants’ constitutional arguments.” - Judge Gerald Lynch, Second Circuit Court of Appeals

The public is mostly undecided on what should be done. On the one hand, they don’t want the government overstepping its constitutional authority and violating our right to privacy. However, on the other hand, they want to feel protected from terrorists.

In the past several weeks, national security analysts have hit the media airwaves, stating that the bulk collection of data has been worthless and hasn't resulted in anything noteworthy.

So what should be the path forward? In the past month, the House of Representatives passed the USA Freedom Act. Is it perfect? No. But that doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t be added to the debate on how we proceed forward. [POLITICO posted an article recently that reported how this new piece of legislation would “reform” the Patriot Act.]

However lawmakers choose to proceed in the days and weeks ahead, they should be mindful of our constitutional rights when deciding on national security. Though we take national security very seriously, we will not allow our rights to be disregarded.

“Those who surrender freedom for security will not have, nor do they deserve, either one.” - Benjamin Franklin

Photo Credit: Carsten Reisinger /

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