By Sen. Tom Carper
This week, we reflect on the challenges our Founding Fathers faced more than 200 years ago in drafting our Constitution. Among the thorny issues they dealt with were slavery, the rights of women and the structure of our government. In fact, as soon as our Founding Fathers ratified the Constitution, they started thinking about how to amend it, and soon adopted the Bill of Rights. As I like to say, the road to improvement is always under construction, and for more than two centuries, we have been striving to make this union of ours more perfect.
Today, a significant constitutional challenge we face is how we reconcile our desire to respect – and protect – our cherished civil liberties while ensuring we are doing everything we can to keep Americans safe.
Striking that balance is very much a work in progress. The recent national debate about our government’s surveillance and intelligence-gathering practices is a perfect example of how challenging it is to strike it and of how important it is to have this conversation from time to time.
Unfortunately, we know all too well that there are those around the world who would do us harm.
Yet we’ve only had one major terror attack in the United States since Sept. 11, 2001. There’s a reason why there’s only been one successful attack – though many have been attempted. I believe it is because our intelligence community has remained vigilant and has acted on the intelligence they gathered through programs authorized by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and the PATRIOT Act.
These programs provide some of the most important counterterrorism tools we have at our disposal. Using them effectively has prevented attacks and saved lives. Despite this success, I believe it is imperative that we take steps to protect the civil liberties and privacy of all Americans.
That’s why I was troubled by recent revelations that many of the safeguards to protect citizens’ privacy that my colleagues and I insisted on when supporting intelligence-gathering authority for our government may not always have been followed consistently by the National Security Agency.
Like President Barack Obama, I believe Congress should review the NSA’s practices and determine what changes should be made in light of these revelations. I am encouraged that my colleagues on the Intelligence and Judiciary committees have held hearings on this topic since these transgressions came to light. Additionally, last month, the president proposed reforms to the PATRIOT Act and to the FISA law to increase transparency and ensure the laws protect Americans’ rights.
His proposal includes establishing an in-house civil liberties officer at the NSA to improve compliance with safeguards protecting American citizens, as well as convening experts to review and issue recommendations about how technology has impacted current surveillance laws. The president also committed to working with Congress to revise the government’s authority to collect phone records of citizens if there is a connection to an ongoing terrorism investigation. I welcome these positive developments.
While I do not serve on the committees that have primary jurisdiction over intelligence programs, I do chair the Senate’s Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. Our committee has an important role in ensuring that we properly vet the federal agencies and companies who hire the employees entrusted with our nation’s most secure information.
As chairman, I will ensure our committee conducts critical oversight of these vetting efforts and will work to increase transparency over how our government conducts background investigations and awards security clearances.
As we re-examine our nation’s surveillance laws, it’s important to remember that my colleagues and I worked to ensure that these laws are not permanent. Congress insisted that these laws be reauthorized regularly so we can continue exercising strong oversight and determining whether further modifications to these laws are necessary.
I expect the administration to use these intelligence gathering tools to target only those suspected of terrorist offenses – and my colleagues and I, along with the judicial branch, should do our part by providing strong oversight of these surveillance practices. If all three branches of government do our respective jobs, we can strike a responsible balance between preserving civil liberties and privacy and protecting our citizens from those who wish to do us harm.
This op-ed ran in The News Journal (link)