In the end, Congress did the right thing. The USA Freedom Act, which ends the National Security Agency’s bulk collection of American phone records, passed the Senate convincingly Tuesday, ending a long and labored fight.
This is no small achievement. Practically, it ends an unpopular, legally dubious and empirically ineffective domestic espionage program. Politically, it signals that Congress can still make progress on serious matters when it tries. And symbolically, it suggests that, 14 years after the Sept. 11 attacks, the U.S. may finally be getting back to normal.
Perhaps the most potent expression of that symbolism came from the bill’s opponents. In successive attempts to block, delay and dilute this legislation, they employed some familiar oratorical excesses: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell called the bill “a resounding victory for those currently plotting attacks against the homeland.” Yet the opponents failed completely.
This indicates, perhaps, a deeper cultural shift. If Americans no longer respond to this kind of alarming rhetoric as they once did — if they’re no longer quite so comfortable ceding liberties for the false promise of total security — that is both psychic and civic progress. Democracy requires a sturdy spine no less than a level head.
As it happens, McConnell’s fears are baseless. The law still allows the NSA to collect phone records, as long as it has a court order. It renews other counterterrorism tools that were jeopardized by this fight. And it preserves the NSA’s most important surveillance programs while ensuring that the government can no longer continuously spy on its own citizens. It was a compromise, supported by everyone from the intelligence community to Human Rights Watch.
It isn’t perfect, of course. Some of its language may be prone to misinterpretation, accidental or otherwise. It doesn’t address other aspects of the NSA’s global spying operation that require more scrutiny. And some of its transparency requirements may prove ineffective.
Yet the new law is of a piece with the long and cyclical history of American espionage, the limits on which change with the tenor of the times. After World War I, the NSA’s predecessor organization was found to be overzealously spying on the communications of U.S. allies. Secretary of State Henry Stimson cut off its funding, memorably saying that “Gentlemen do not read each other’s mail.” When the NSA and its fellow travelers acquired expansive new powers during the Cold War, overreach followed once again, this time in the form of domestic spying, assassination attempts abroad and much more. The resulting Church Committee investigations led to a systematic overhaul of their oversight.
In rolling back some of the extensive powers granted to intelligence agencies after Sept. 11, the USA Freedom Act suggests that this long civic quest to balance liberty and safety remains vigorous. It shows that fearfulness isn’t a permanent condition of American politics. And it affirms the value of transparency and liberty, even in a dangerous age.