On the evening of Wednesday, July 24, in Washington, DC, just as this newspaper was going to press, the US House of Representatives voted on whether to continue the indiscriminate collection of Americans’ phone data. Specifically, the legislation at hand was an amendment to the 2014 Department of Defense Appropriations Act, co-written by Democrats and Republicans, that, if passed, would effectively flip the switch for such data trawling from “ON” to “OFF.”
The vote, in which “NOES” beat the “AYES” 217 to 205, was relevant to Rhode Islanders for at least three reasons. First is the salient question of whether someone, somewhere, in some government office building is peeping at your metadata — who you call; when and how frequently you call them — regardless of your connection to criminal activity. Second is the fact that Rhody’s two Democratic representatives, Jim Langevin and David Cicilline, voted on opposite sides of the issue. (Cicilline was for the amendment, Langevin was against.) Third is that fact that a former Rhode Island state rep and Providence City Council member — David Segal, now executive director of Demand Progress, which vows to “provide an advocate for the public in all the back-room decisions that affect our lives” — was instrumental in getting the vote to the floor. His group, he says, sent 40,000 emails and coordinated some 35,000 phone calls on the issue.
The three men spoke about what this vote means for US security from both terrorist threats and peering government eyes. The interviews have been edited and condensed.
LANGEVIN: First of all, as a senior member of the House Intelligence Committee, I’ve been read in on these programs for years now and not all members of Congress are read in to these programs. Not all members have had the kind of oversight or information or briefings that I’ve had with respect to how these programs work. Additionally, the fact that although the Amash Amendment may have been well-intentioned . . . programs under Section 215 or 702 [of the Patriot Act] that have been very effective in keeping the nation safe shouldn’t be altered based on a knee-jerk reaction with just fifteen minutes of debate. Section 215, in particular, of the Patriot Act has been directly responsible for preventing at least twelve terrorist attacks on US soil . . . since it was enacted in 2001.
I will say this: whenever we’re talking about protecting the privacy and civil liberties of the American people, I think we always have to be ever-vigilant and constantly reviewing the capabilities of our law enforcement and intelligence agencies and their actions.
CICILLINE: I think the current NSA program is being too broadly implemented and collects information regarding the private communications or the private contacts of millions of Americans. And I think that it is possible to develop a more narrowly tailored program that will require the government to show that someone is the subject of an investigation before seizing their records and that that can be just as effective. And I think that we can both protect the privacy interests of American citizens and our national security at the same time.