Thursday, October 31, 2013

Big Stinkers

If it seems like there's a lot going on in the news this week, it's not just your imagination. This is what it looks like when Congress actually sticks around DC to do some work.

This week alone, the Senate confirmed Presidential appointments to the FCC and the NLRB. Democrats in the Senate also introduced a bill that would end debt ceiling brinksmanship, based on an idea from Republican Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. Republicans and Democrats from both the House and Senate also met officially, in a conference committee on the farm bill for the first time in years on Wednesday. The bipartisan conference committee on the budget also met this week. And immigration reform is definitely not dead yet.

The House also held a hearing on the federal healthcare website and the rollout of Obamacare on Wednesday, with Secretary Kathleen Sebelius. Let's just say that didn't exactly go the way tea party Republicans thought it would.

In short, Congress this week - for the most part - looks like an organization that mostly has its stuff together and seems to have a decent idea of where it's headed.

That's a disturbing contrast from the stink that began leaking out last weekend over the actions of the NSA and other intelligence agencies. From tapping the cell phone of Germany's Angela Merkel - and 34 other world leaders - to spying on the Papal Conclave at the Vatican, the list of the NSA's gaffes, mistakes, and serious failures is long and frightening.

Even after the explosion of information earlier this year, the skunkworks groups of our national security apparatus appear to have their heads shoved so far into their spycraft they have no idea of how badly they've stunk things up for the government they claim to serve.

Just this week alone, more leaks were released by Edward Snowden through journalist Barton Gellman at the Washington Post. Those documents show the NSA was also using the massive servers and technology of companies like Yahoo and Google - without their approval - to help bypsss legal restrictions that had already been imposed on the NSA.

As Eugene Robinson noted this week, the National Security Agency is indeed out of control. Even with the latest revelations, those heading up the NSA remain clueless, as they still seem to think lame excuses like "Everyone does it" are perfectly acceptable for one of America's top intelligence agencies.

We'll agree that most nations - and even the Vatican - have spies, and that there are good reasons for America to keep a watch on our allies. There are equally good reasons for our allies to keep quiet tabs on us -  for example, the Tea Party extremists who almost blew up the world's economy this month.

That said, there are ways to gather secret information that do not violate the spirit of our laws, let alone leave a trail of political stink and legal confusion like the NSA's bumbling has done.

With members of Congress suddenly intent on passing multiple pieces of legislation before the end of the year, it was great to see that energy driven in the right direction late Wednesday. That's when the USA Freedom Act, whch would significantly curtail the NSA's powers was introduced by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and Rep. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-WI), the original author of the Patriot Act.

While we have yet to fully read through the proposed bill, we hope the 16 Senate co-sponsors and 70-plus sponsors in the House don't just let this one get buried in partisanship.

As Ryan Cooper of The Plum Line noted earlier this week, it's high time we focused some of our national legislative energies on right-sizing our American security state.