When the National Security Agency's routine collection of Americans' telephone and electronic communication records became known last summer, President Barack Obama defended the program and said the nation “is going to have to make some choices” about the balance between privacy and security.
But choosing overly intrusive security would create an insecurity all its own.
And though the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday rejected a petition challenging the NSA's massive personal-records grab, the courts – and Congress – should still have more to say on this troubling issue.
Indeed, though that legal action by Electronic Privacy Information Center was turned back by the high court, the wording from that challenge is all too accurate – and chilling. It argued that the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court “exceeded its statutory jurisdiction when it ordered production of millions of domestic telephone records that cannot plausibly be relevant to an authorized investigation.”
But that hasn't stopped Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., chair of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, from pushing her bill, introduced along with Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., to enshrine in law an NSA right to collect bulk electronic communications data in a potentially huge expansion of government domestic surveillance powers.
The 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act was supposed to place constraints on NSA surveillance. It has not lived up to its billing. For example, the FISA court effectively rewrote the controversial Section 215 of the Patriot Act that required any seizure be relevant to an ongoing probe.
If Sen. Feinstein's bill becomes law, law enforcement and intelligence agencies might be able to persuade courts that this dragnet principle should be extended to emails, tax records, credit card statements and bank accounts. In effect, the law could allow the government to sweep up data on every significant activity of every American as it willed.
Sen. Feinstein, the president and others have offered assurances that collecting the data isn't the same as listening to and reading the personal communications.
But that's a distinction with precious little difference.
A better bill has been proposed by Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., an author of the Patriot Act, and Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee. It would restore the original intent of Section 215 – that any government demand for data be “relevant” to an ongoing probe. That would at least stop the mindless bulk collection of sensitive data on all Americans.
A new report based on the expertise of more than 100 scientists and researchers offers a harsh reality for South Carolina's climate future.
It was perhaps odd timing that the report - recently released as part of a Congressional mandated effort known as the National Climate Assessment - was distributed at a time when our state is experiencing bitterly cold weather.
However, the report offers insight about long-term trends related to global warming- projecting extreme weather, declines in air quality and even stresses on the water supply.
This climate variability - including extremely hot and cold weather, droughts and stronger and more frequent storms - will mean more intense weather patterns for the South.
Some argue that few, if any, realistic measures can be taken to curb global climate change, which is rooted in the release of heat-trapping gases such as carbon dioxide.
The United States, China and India are the leading contributors of such emissions, and while the U.S. can adopt domestic policies that are environmentally-friendly, some question what influence we can exert internationally.
While the U.S. can't control global decision making when it comes to climate change, it can certainly take a leadership role.
One of the most significant difficulties with bridging the gap between carbon-based fuels, such as coal, and renewable sources, such as solar, wind and biomass, is the lack of infrastructure.
As evident from the recent report, some level of change will have to implemented to reverse these negative trends. It may not be sweeping reforms, but the right steps will ensure a brighter outlook for the future.
Earlier this year, when there were fresh ethical allegations under investigation against the governor, the former lieutenant governor, the state treasurer, the speaker of the House and some lawmakers, ethics reform became a hot topic in Columbia – but not hot enough that lawmakers did anything about it.
The governor established a commission that advocated a reasonable and adequate package of reforms, but lawmakers balked at genuine reform. The entire General Assembly failed to pass an ethics reform bill this year.
The state House did pass a bill, which is still alive and will be considered by the Senate when the General Assembly reconvenes in January. That's the bill Gov. Nikki Haley is urging lawmakers to pass, going so far as threatening to expose any lawmaker who tries to thwart the bill. The threats are probably unnecessary. The bill does not go far enough to engender real opposition by corrupt lawmakers. It is a watered down version of the necessary reforms.
Instead of passing the House bill as it is, the Senate should strengthen it and send it back to the House. By doing so, they could fix several problems with the bill and the lax ethical enforcement system in the state.
The primary problem with ethics enforcement within the General Assembly is that lawmakers are responsible for policing themselves.
The House bill would not really fix this. Instead of abolishing these committees and giving the investigating and punitive power to an independent authority, the bill makes some slight changes. It would modify the state Ethics Commission so that it includes appointees from the speaker of the House and the president pro tem of the Senate. Then it would give this new commission, complete with its additional foxes, the power to investigate allegations against lawmakers. But any punishment for lawmakers found guilty would still be made by lawmakers.
The bill would require lawmakers to disclose all the sources of their personal income, but it doesn't require them to disclose the amount of that income. This allows voters to know who is paying their lawmakers but not how much they are paying them, making it impossible for voters to put the information into context.
The ethics bill passed by the House earlier this year and touted by the governor is not enough. It needs to be strengthened before it is passed.