Current events remind us of a long-standing and important debate surrounding national security and personal privacy. Twenty-first century technologies heighten that debate. And while these technologies can save untold numbers of lives on the battlefield and here at home, they can also potentially threaten our cherished right to privacy. While I oppose measures that would gut America’s essential counter-terrorism tools, I readily recognize the constitutional concerns that so many of my fellow defenders of liberty have raised.
I understand the heightened distrust of government harbored by many Ohioans, and honestly, I share the sentiment myself. The Obama administration has proven through scandal and executive overreach that they too often fail to operate in good faith with the American people.
Going forward, the federal government must work to make sure that intelligence gathering activities don’t violate our rights as declared in the Constitution. That’s why I voted for a measure clarifying that no taxpayer funds may be used by the NSA to target an American citizen or store the content of their communications, including phone calls and e-mails.
Citizens of the United States and my constituents in southern and southwest Ohio must have the assurances that their privacy is safeguarded and their lives protected. Both of these goals are important and neither necessarily outweighs the other. Outlined below are steps that I believe would add additional privacy protections for all of us while maintaining the government’s ability to keep us safe.
First, review appropriate provisions of the PATRIOT Act, with special attention to new technologies and individual privacy. The PATRIOT Act was written over a decade ago and passed in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks on America. This was a time when text messaging, Skype, Facebook, and smartphones either did not exist or were not widely used.
While I was not in office when the legislation was last reauthorized, I believe that the legislative branch should reexamine parts of the PATRIOT Act, addressing the recent technological developments and where they fit within the Act’s authorizing provisions.
Second, proactively declassify documents that contain information that no longer jeopardize the safety of Americans by being revealed. Classified documents play a vital role in protecting our country’s national security, but often intelligence agencies have a tendency to over classify information. They err on the side of caution, and justifiably so.
Yet, as questions about the NSA have arisen, the agency has been able to declassify a number of documents to provide greater transparency and understanding of how intelligence programs actually operate.
Third, institute quarterly audits from a private, independent firm that are made available to members of Congress. Our intelligence communities handle massive amounts of information, ranging from the files of Osama Bin Laden’s hard drives to the phone records of terrorist cells.
We must ensure that this data is being collected and searched properly and that any actions which breach the law are identified and corrected in a timely manner. This oversight must come from an entity outside the intelligence communities that has the clearance and dedicated resources to review data collection activities.
Fourth, determine whether third party, non-governmental companies can securely store data and records. Currently, the NSA collects and stores information on government servers in order to quickly query data when a threat is identified. This raises valid concerns about whether the 4th Amendment is being violated.
Instead of government storage, phone and internet companies could be asked to retain their records for a longer period of time. The government would reimburse the private companies for this lengthened storage and establish a system to gather records when legally and constitutionally allowable.
The preamble of our Constitution tasks the federal government to “provide for the common defense,” and this core responsibility should not be overlooked when we talk about reforming our intelligence communities. Through deliberate and thoughtful steps, we can ensure the government is able to protect both life and liberty.
Brad Wenstrup represents Ohio’s Second District.