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Lee Hamilton’s View: Time for Congress, courts to limit abuses of governmental snooping

By Lee. H Hamilton

Every few days, we learn yet one more way in which government’s expanded surveillance powers intrude upon our privacy and civil liberties.
Last week, it was the revelation that spy agencies in the U.S. and Britain have been snagging personal data from the users of mobile phone apps. Before that came news that the NSA was tracking our social connections and delving into our contact lists. It appears the agency can do anything it wants when it comes to collecting information on pretty much anyone it wants.
We can take pride in this technological virtuosity, but it has propelled an expansion of government power unlike anything I’ve seen since I joined Congress 50 years ago. So we face the crucial question of what to do about them. How can we prevent abuse of the capabilities the NSA has been given?
The White House argues that there are elaborate “checks and balances” within the executive branch to prevent abuses. That’s commendable but insufficient. There is a lack of evidence that Congress and the courts provided pushback on any of the intelligence community’s initiatives to expand its power — they have been reliable and relatively uncritical allies of the intelligence community.
I do not see how we get the balance between liberty and security right unless the courts and the full Congress — not just certain committee members — get all the information they need and step up to their constitutional responsibilities to check and balance executive power.
At a minimum, then, Congress and the courts should do the job our system counts on them to do, and commit to rigorous and sustained oversight and, in the case of Congress, legislative action to refine the laws governing federal surveillance. Government should not be entitled secretly to get information on anyone whenever it wants without more transparency, more information, more debate, more oversight, and additional constraints.
Sorting through these questions will be arduous and is the work of many years. Yet the public policy issues they raise are of enormous magnitude. Getting the balance right between liberty and security is a daunting job, and now is the time for the Congress and the courts to exert leadership.

Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.

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