- - Monday, June 1, 2015

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Almost nobody stands up to cheer for government agencies with “security” in their names. Security, like medicine, can be necessary but nobody likes it, and those who administer it are, like Nurse Cratchit with her spoon and medicine bottle, often severe and unfeeling. Nobody likes snoops, either, and the United States was founded on skepticism of government. Even after producing the Constitution the Founders amended it with the Bill of Rights, aimed at bureaucrats and rule-makers eager to assert government control over everyone.

But turning “security” over to private bureaucracies like the telephone companies won’t make hearts beat faster with the thrill of relief. The various telephone companies that sprang from the breakup of the Bell System have satisfied no one, and transferring custodianship of the records of everyone’s telephone calls isn’t likely to please everyone, either.

Whatever else telephone companies were designed to do — to make a profit, to stitch a vast nation together, to serve the needs of anyone who wants to call someone across town or across the sea — it is certainly not security. Telephone records have always been open to scrutiny by all. How would anyone know if thieves inside a telephone bureaucracy were peddling the furtive naughty whispers of one customer to another for a little blackmail cash?

The Supreme Court has sensibly ruled that when you assign your conversations to a public utility such as the telephone company, you forfeit any expectation of privacy, and such rights — if they are indeed bestowed by the Constitution — fall away. That means that the idea of using the telephone companies, rather than the government, as a substitute for what a majority of Americans have since 9/11 thought was necessary monitoring of public communications facilities to ferret out threats of terrorism, is dangerous business.

Sen. Rand Paul does not have a monopoly on such concerns, although he seems to think so, and we cringe with others at the prospect of the government monitoring all communications traffic. The members of Congress who believe certain provisions of the Patriot Act are necessary to draw more effective checks and balances on the process, are wise and correct. The debate has been worthwhile and necessary.

When the Senate couldn’t get itself together Sunday to make the reforms of the Patriot Act necessary to satisfy everyone, the National Security Agency (NSA) began shutting down the machinery for scooping up what it calls metadata — the telephone numbers called from a specific telephone, and the length of the call. The agency said it shut down the system at midnight.

Legislation passed by the House, and advanced with an overwhelming vote of 77 to 17 on Sunday night, would prohibit the NSA from collecting this bulk metadata, and leave it to the tender care of the telephone companies. The NSA could search the records, but only with a search warrant. Final approval of the legislation was expected to follow at once, and go to the White House where President Obama is waiting to sign it.

This would be the first major alteration of the Patriot Act, which was enacted in the turbulent and fearful days following the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. That legislation was hastily written, with the usual flaws of a job done in a hurry, and the NSA has interpreted the law with the usual bureaucratic greed for power to control. Certain changes were needed, and we hope for the best.

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