Ending the terrorism war

Thanks to Edward Snowden, surveillance reform is underway

When its history is written, 2013 will go down as the year when America finally realized that, in its fearful response to the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, it had trampled on the Constitution, sacrificing fundamental freedoms for imagined security. And for that we have a whistle-blower named Edward Snowden to thank.

Had Snowden not released documents showing just how vast and intrusive the National Security Agency’s secret collection of communications data and content had become, President Obama would not have called for a robust national debate about surveillance. Nor would he have appointed a blue-ribbon panel of intelligence and legal experts to examine the matter, issue a report and make recommendations for reform.

Last week, just two days after a federal judge, Richard Leon, determined that NSA surveillance was “almost Orwellian” and probably unconstitutional, that report landed on the president’s desk bearing the same message. It calls for the NSA to stop its bulk collection of phone and Internet “metadata,” and for greater oversight of and limitations upon its surveillance program generally.

The report also calls for reform of the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which rules on governmental surveillance proposals, currently heard without opposition, by establishing an advocate for the people’s civil liberties. It also would require that the FISA court’s judges no longer be appointed solely by the chief justice of the Supreme Court, but instead be divided among all the justices.

Most significant, perhaps, the report echoes Leon’s determination that NSA surveillance has done little to prevent terrorism and offers negligible security at a great cost.

Some of the report’s 46 recommendations will require congressional approval; others the president can implement on his own. In a May speech he stated that the war on terrorism, “like all wars, must end.” This report is a good step in that direction.