Chicago Sun-Times - - OPINION - Fol­low the Edi­to­rial Board on Twit­ter:@ cste­d­i­to­ri­als. Send let­ters to let­ters@ suntimes. com.

To hear U. S. Rep. Ted Poe, RTexas, tell it, NSA stands for “No Strings At­tached” when it comes to the way the fed­eral agency sweeps up and ex­am­ines the most pri­vate data of Amer­i­can cit­i­zens.

Poe raised the is­sue, with some emo­tion, on Tues­day dur­ing the House com­mit­tee hear­ing held to ques­tion U. S. At­tor­ney Gen­eral Jeff Ses­sions. How the Na­tional Se­cu­rity Agency can so ca­su­ally root around in the per­sonal data of Amer­i­cans who have done no wrong was be­yond him.

Not that Ses­sions could see the prob­lem.

“You don’t think prob­a­ble cause and a war­rant is re­quired to go into that in­for­ma­tion?” Poe asked.

Ses­sions all but shrugged. Fed­eral courts have held that the NSA has that right, the at­tor­ney gen­eral replied, adding “I agree with the courts, not you, con­gress­man.”

But Poe is right and Ses­sions is wrong. And may we note that both Poe and Ses­sions are Repub­li­cans and, more of­ten than not, sup­port­ers of Don­ald Trump.

This is not a par­ti­san is­sue. This is an Amer­i­can lib­er­ties is­sue.

Poe’s com­ments came Tues­day as Congress con­sid­ers whether to per­mit the NSA to con­tinue eaves­drop­ping on elec­tronic com­mu­ni­ca­tions of for­eign­ers out­side theUnited States. Such eaves­drop­ping can sweep up phone calls, emails or other com­mu­ni­ca­tions by in­no­cent Amer­i­can cit­i­zens who com­mu­ni­cate with for­eign­ers, even if the cit­i­zens have no con­nec­tions to spy­ing or ter­ror­ism. The law al­low­ing the eaves­drop­ping ex­pires at the end of the year.

Un­for­tu­nately, as usu­ally hap­pens when it’s time to dis­cuss this im­por­tant pri­vacy and se­cu­rity is­sue, Congress is wrapped up in some­thing else. This time, tax cuts for wealthy peo­ple are­mo­nop­o­liz­ing Congress’ at­ten­tion. Lit­tle time re­mains be­fore the end of the year for thought­ful hear­ings and de­bate on the ap­pro­pri­ate level of sur­veil­lance in a free so­ci­ety and what the na­ture and scope of the NSA’s pro­gram should be.

That’s dis­may­ing, es­pe­cially at a time when Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump is ex­press­ing in­ter­est in us­ing the in­ves­tiga­tive pow­ers of the gov­ern­ment to pur­sue a for­mer po­lit­i­cal op­po­nent, Hil­lary Clin­ton. It is easy to see how the fruits of ex­ces­sive gov­ern­ment spy­ing could be hor­ri­bly mis­used.

The 9- year- old law in ques­tion— Sec­tion 702 of the For­eign In­tel­li­gence Sur­veil­lance Act— was in­tended to give the NSA a way to de­tect and de­ter ter­ror­ist plots. That re­mains im­por­tant. It’s one of the­most di­rect ways to pro­tect an open so­ci­ety.

But it’s also im­por­tant that the pri­vacy and in­di­vid­ual se­cu­rity at the foun­da­tion of that open so­ci­ety be re­spected and pro­tected. Care­ful mea­sures should be put in place to prop­erly limit which com­mu­ni­ca­tions of in­di­vid­ual Amer­i­cans can be viewed by do­mes­tic law en­force­ment agen­cies, some­thing Congress hasn’t in­cluded in its reau­tho­riza­tion bills.

Un­der the cur­rent law, the FBI is per­mit­ted to sift through the NSA data­base for ev­i­dence of Amer­i­cans com­mit­ting crimes. That’s amis­take. The FBI should be re­quired to get a war­rant from a judge and show prob­a­ble cause that a crime has been com­mit­ted. A Se­nate com­mit­tee has re­jected an ef­fort by Sen. Dianne Fe­in­stein, D- Cal­i­for­nia, and Sen. Ka­mala Har­ris, D- Cal­i­for­nia, to write such a pro­tec­tion into the reau­tho­riza­tion bill, but the full Se­nate should re­con­sider that be­fore it takes a fi­nal vote.

In the House, House Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee lead­ers are supporting some new lim­i­ta­tions on sur­veil­lance, in­clud­ing the re­quire­ment of a war­rant.

The NSA is un­der­stood to sweep up bil­lions of emails, calls, texts and other com­mu­ni­ca­tions ev­ery sin­gle day. That un­doubt­edly in­cludes many com­mu­ni­ca­tions by or­di­nary Amer­i­cans who never sus­pect their words can be ex­am­ined by the gov­ern­ment.

The walls be­tween do­mes­tic law en­force­ment and for­eign in­tel­li­gence were breached af­ter 9/ 11, and FBI Di­rec­tor Christo­pherWray ar­gues that writ­ing pro­tec­tions back into the law would be dan­ger­ous to the Amer­i­can pub­lic. That ig­nores the per­ils of cre­at­ing an un­der- reg­u­lated dossier on Amer­i­cans.

In­for­ma­tion gath­ered by the NSA is sub­ject to po­ten­tial abuse not just by gov­ern­ment but also by any­one who gains ac­cess to it. Un­known hack­ers al­ready have stolen the NSA’s pow­er­ful cy­ber weapons and used them against hap­less com­puter users world­wide. It’s not hard to en­vi­sion how the com­mu­ni­ca­tions of in­no­cent Amer­i­cans that were swept up by the NSA could be hacked in the same man­ner, or that they al­ready have been.

The Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion— no friend of cit­i­zens’ pri­vacy— is push­ing for a per­ma­nent au­tho­riza­tion of the law. That would be an er­ror, not only be­cause of the lack of thor­ough de­bate, but also be­cause rapidly ad­vanc­ing tech­nol­ogy will change the sur­veil­lance ca­pa­bil­i­ties of the gov­ern­ment.

At Tues­day’s hear­ing, Rep. Poe said, “It is the re­spon­si­bil­ity of Congress to set the pri­vacy stan­dard for Amer­i­cans.”

He’s right. It’s time for Congress to do its job.

Care­ful mea­sures should be put in place to prop­erly limit which com­mu­ni­ca­tions of in­di­vid­ual Amer­i­cans can be viewed by do­mes­tic law en­force­ment agen­cies.


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