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The looming "security cliff"

Should a government that can already seize your bank account for very little reason be allowed to also collect your phone records with as little justification?

Our legislative body is over one “cliff” and on another as the main provisions of The Patriot Act are set to expire June 1. The Senate, up against needs to address Americans’ concern about their private information being collected en masse without neglecting national security, failed to reach an accord after holding late-night votes on Friday night.

The House has passed the Freedom Act, a way to protect national security while still respecting the rights of private citizens. The Act allows federal information gathering with judicial approval but specifically prohibits the kind of mass data collection that happened in the NSA’s secret programs.

Up against a Memorial Day recess, the Senate held votes after midnight. Senate approval of the House-passed Freedom Act failed, leaving the option of short-term reauthorizations as Majority Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY)54%
’s final option. Attempts to extend the act to early June were rejected, leaving the Senate back to square one when they return on May 31 for an eleventh hour session.

Will we see a stalemate like the all-too-familiar fiscal cliffs and frequent government shutdowns? We’ve seen this show before, and it’s getting old. As Matt Welch says,

Why does Capitol Hill lurch from cliff to cliff, instead of actually do the job of governing? I suppose this bad habit of mind is good for certain opportunistic politicians with a sense of theater, but it’s just lousy for the country. The Republicans run the joint; the dysfunction is now squarely on them.

The subjects of the NSA program that collects and stores Americans’ telephone dialing records are ordinary people whom no one even thinks have committed a crime. It sounds scarily similar to civil asset forfeiture and other abuses. Our government has developed a habit of picking out individual citizens and organizations whose positions it doesn’t like for bureaucratic hassle and criminal-style raids. Do we really want that government having unrestricted access to our bulk phone call data?

A U.S. Circuit Court ruled last week that the kind of data collection done by the NSA under section 215 of the Patriot Act was illegal. It did not align with the intention of the law’s writers, and was also possibly unconstitutional. If Congress passes even a temporary extension of the Patriot Act after knowing how NSA lawyers interpreted it, they will affirm its use as interpreted by the NSA. Needless to say, this would greatly complicate future debate and judicial decisions over the program.

Our representatives have an opportunity to put a definitive end to government intrusion on ordinary American citizens’ private information without cause. Or they can buckle to the pressure of time and machinations of a few in D.C. who think they must hold on to such tools in order to preserve security and order.

Sixty-five percent of Americans surveyed recently by the Pew Research Center said the current government access to private records is not limited enough. “Pew notes that respondents who are more aware of government online surveillance programs are considerably more likely to believe adequate safeguards are not in place.”

Americans have spoken: The government doesn’t need records of all our phone calls in order to stop terrorist attacks. They must be able to get the information they need to protect us, but within reasonable boundaries that do not sacrifice our fundamental liberties. As Benjamin Franklin warned, “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.”

Liberty and security are not mutually exclusive. There is a proper balance between the two – one our leaders should be able to find.

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