This Sunday, September 21, the New York Times published an editorial, “Close the N.S.A.’s Back Doors,” supporting a piece of legislation that the Bill of Rights Defense Committee, alone among national advocacy organizations, has endorsed since August.
The Times editorial board wrote:
[T]he [NSA] has never met an encryption system that it has not tried to penetrate. And it frequently tries to take the easy way out. Because modern cryptography can be so hard to break, even using the brute force of the agency’s powerful supercomputers, the agency prefers to collaborate with big software companies and cipher authors, getting hidden access built right into their systems.
The New York Times, The Guardian and ProPublica recently reported that the agency now has access to the codes that protect commerce and banking systems, trade secrets and medical records, and everyone’s e-mail and Internet chat messages, including virtual private networks. In some cases, the agency pressured companies to give it access….
These back doors and special access routes are a terrible idea, another example of the intelligence community’s overreach….If back doors are built into systems by the N.S.A., who is to say that other countries’ spy agencies — or hackers, pirates and terrorists — won’t discover and exploit them?
Representative Rush Holt, Democrat of New Jersey, has introduced a bill that would, among other provisions, bar the government from requiring software makers to insert built-in ways to bypass encryption. It deserves full Congressional support.
The bill introduced by Rep. Holt is the “Surveillance State Repeal Act” (H.R. 2818). If enacted into law, the bill would entirely repeal both the USA PATRIOT Act and the FISA Amendments Act of 2008.
BORDC was the first national advocacy organization to publicly promote Rep. Holt’s bill, identifying it as the most meaningful bill among over a dozen alternatives currently pending in Congress. In the grassroots organizing toolkit we compiled to guide concerned Americans during the August congressional recess, we described the Surveillance State Repeal Act as “easily the most aggressive and visionary proposal among the dozen bills introduced” at that point.
In early August, BORDC’s Shahid Buttar noted how the SSRA connects to a recent debate on the House floor:
The surveillance state staved off a public vote of no confidence with a margin of just over 1%. And that was before the latest revelations of online and email surveillance even beyond what Congress knew about at the time.
The PATRIOT Act has never been popular among Americans despite its recurring reauthorization from a compliant Congress. Over 400 cities and towns across the country enacted resolutions opposing PATRIOT powers, in addition to eight states, all representing a wide diversity of political cultures.
Would Congress have ever approved these powers had their more recent abuses been anticipated years ago? If recent comments from PATRIOT’s author offer any indication, the answer is no….
Members of Congress sensitive to constitutional limits on executive power have introduced no fewer than a dozen bills to curtail NSA spying. Most of them would do nothing to address the recent disclosures. Until the full scope of NSA spying is revealed to the public, congressional remedies for constitutional violations will remain insufficient.
The Surveillance State Repeal Act, introduced in the House by former House intelligence Chairman (and Princeton physics professor) Rush Holt (D-NJ), would come the closest, by repealing the PATRIOT act and the FISA amendments act of 2008 entirely. Among the reform proposals that have been introduced, it may be the only one that reaches the sphere of…“unknown unknowns” that continue to impede efforts to restore the rule of law….
In later commentary, Buttar further explained why grassroots support for the Holt bill is so crucial:
The…2008 FISA amendments were controversial when they passed, presaging the widespread outrage that has erupted since the revelation this summer of some (but still not all) of the abuses they enabled.
Even relative to the Leahy and Conyers-Amash proposals, the widest-ranging bill among those pending in Congress is the “Surveillance State Repeal Act”…. The Holt bill, unlike any of the other measures proposed, would fully repeal the PATRIOT Act and the 2008 FISA amendments in their entirety, essentially restoring limits on executive power and unwinding the surveillance abuses of the George W. Bush and Obama administrations at once.
Even though the Holt bill lacks the widespread support of more conciliatory congressional alternatives, it is crucial for concerned Americans to champion the broad spectrum remedies that it entails. In the absence of a grass-roots clamor calling for dramatic fundamental reforms, the congressional debate likely will slide in an authoritarian direction this fall, once executive agencies and officials regroup from the political drubbing they endured during the summer and flood Congress with armies of corporate and military lobbyists...claiming that dragnet domestic surveillance is a national security imperative.
In fact, the only sectors of American society to which surveillance is necessary are the corporate and military interests that depend on it....[T]he only security at risk should Congress finally limit NSA abuses is the job security of the…contractors and government employees whose careers are built on a fundamentally authoritarian premise.
If only because of the sheer size and existential commitment of that lobbying base, the agencies always have enjoyed an upper hand in Congress. That is why grass-roots support for the Holt bill is so critical: it alone would shift the debate from one about long overdue limitations on government agencies toward, in contrast, the illusory justification for those powers to exist in the first place.