Patriot Act may get revamping

The firestorm caused by the disclosures made by Edward Snowden, now a fugitive hiding out in Russia, on the National Security Agency's domestic and foreign spying programs has reached a point where President Barack Obama says action needs to be taken to rein them in.

The devil, as they say, is in the details, and there are precious few about what this actually means.

And one major detail is this: The NSA spying program, which is collecting massive amounts of data on Americans, has bipartisan support in Congress. It has so much support, in fact, that this effort by Obama may well be another non-starter with lawmakers.

When Obama made the announcement Friday, U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Moultrie, vice chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, said, "As Congress has known for years, these NSA intelligence collection programs are vital to our national security. I agree with the President that these programs have been mischaracterized, and we need to do more to make sure the American people understand why these programs are both legal and necessary.

"I believe there is a consensus among my colleagues that any modifications to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act must be made on a strong bipartisan basis and must not impede the intelligence community's ability to prevent terrorist attacks."

Obama went back to his well-drawn well of more transparency in government, a concept that he has long promoted, though he has been short on implementing. He did, however, strike a chord with many in the public who were shocked at how extensive the NSA's domestic data mining is on average Americans.

"Given the history of abuse by governments, it's right to ask questions about surveillance, particularly as technology is reshaping every aspect of our lives," Obama said Friday at a news conference at the White House.

Obama, who insisted the government has no interest in spying on ordinary Americans, outlined a four-part approach, but, again, the details were vague. he said he would:

  • Work with Congress to pursue "appropriate reforms" of Section 215 of the anti-terrorism Patriot Act that governs the collection of metadata such as phone records;
  • Work with Congress to reform the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which operates in secret and considers law enforcement requests, presented by Justice Department lawyers, on targeting an individual for intelligence gathering. Obama said a civil liberties representative should be allowed weigh in on the court's deliberations;
  • Provide more details about the NSA programs in an effort to restore public trust;
  • Create of a high-level group of outside experts to review the surveillance efforts.

Whether any of this will go anywhere and what it will mean depend on a Congress that has shown little desire to work with the president, a condition that shows no sign of changing. As attention turns more and more toward the mid-term elections -- two suitors for the Senate seat Chambliss is vacating next year, U.S. Rep. Jack Kingston, R-Savannah, and Democrat Michelle Nunn, were in Albany last week -- the inclination to do any lawmaking will decline. And once next year's elections are behind us, the focus will be on the 2016 presidential sweepstakes, with lawmakers looking ahead at who they will work with next in the White House.

Our guess is the best policy will be to continue to do this -- don't text, email or say anything on a cell phone that you wouldn't want to read in a newspaper or see on TV. You never know who's listening, reading and recording ... but don't put it past your uncle -- Uncle Sam, that is.