Three months ago, there were few voices in the US Congress willing to speak out against the government's secretive surveillance programmes. Then came National Security Agency whistle-blower Edward Snowden's revelations from Hong Kong and the tide turned. A house of representatives vote last month to block funding for data collection failed, but the margin of 205 to 217 showed the uneasiness of lawmakers towards the farming of personal electronic information by intelligence agencies. More votes and legal cases are pending; a much-needed discussion is finally under way.
Secretive laws and provisions put in place after the terror attacks in the US on September 11, 2001, have given American intelligence agencies access to a vast amount of information in the US and abroad. Driven by concern for national security, lawmakers have largely approved requests for extra funding for intelligence expansion, giving wide and powerful reach. The scale and scope of operations unveiled by Snowden prompted questions where before there had only been blind acceptance. Had the amendment been approved, funding for an NSA programme gathering details of every call made by or to a US phone would have been blocked, bar for specific cases.
Documents taken by Snowden while a contractor for the NSA and leaked to the media sparked US-wide concern about the agency, prompting the attempt to curb its reach. Fierce lobbying against change is under way from President Barack Obama's administration, congressional leaders and members of the senate and house intelligence committees. Programmes are justified as having prevented attacks by terrorists.
Legislation was sent to Congress last week to try to force Obama to provide more information about the data programmes. Proposed reform of the Patriot Act, which authorises much of the surveillance, has already been introduced, while efforts to change the powers of the ultra-secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, charged with issuing warrants, is also under way. Congress has started its traditional August recess, but there will be more hearings and votes after it returns.
None of this helps Snowden; he has been granted temporary asylum by Russia and a majority in the US back the espionage charges against him. But that does not lessen the need for greater transparency and oversight of intelligence operations. Privacy has to be dealt with in a sensitive and balanced manner.