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Friday, January 24, 2014

Republicans Urge NSA Surveillance Reform, But What About General Law Enforcement Powers?

The Hill reports on a recent meeting Republican National Committee (RNC) and the resolutions the committee reached at this meeting:

The committee criticized the government’s bulk collection of records about all phone calls, which emerged as one of the most controversial programs revealed in leaks by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. That NSA effort “is in itself contrary to the right of privacy protected by the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution,” the RNC said in the resolution.

The RNC also called the NSA’s classified “PRISM” program, which mines data from the servers of major Internet companies, “the largest surveillance effort ever launched by a democratic government against its own citizens.”
The resolution called for Republican lawmakers to create a new panel “to investigate, report, and reveal to the public the extent of this domestic spying” and to develop recommendations to end “unconstitutional surveillance” and hold officials responsible for the snooping “accountable.”

The Hill notes that this is a notably libertarian move by Republicans, an evaluation with which I agree.

But I have my doubts on how far this libertarian streak goes. For instance, say the RNC confronted the issue of whether law enforcement officers are granted too much discretion under modern Fourth Amendment law. They might be asked to evaluate the expansion of the good faith exception to the exclusionary rule, or the ability to rely on race as a factor when deciding to conduct a traffic stop. These broad instances of the government's law enforcement abilities are likely to draw criticisms from libertarians as well as liberals.

Would the RNC call for reform expanding the exclusionary rule or for revised police practices to curtail their discretion in conducting stops and seizures? I doubt that it would, even though both of those legal doctrines involve the government's interest in law enforcement outweighing people's interests in remedying intrusions on their privacy -- a common theme in much of modern Fourth Amendment law.

Those who protest the NSA's surveillance program would do well to realize that it is only one part of a legal system that tends to grant more weight to the interest of law enforcement than personal privacy. Politicians, activists, and commentators who claim to seek reform must be aware of this context, and frame their concerns accordingly. While programs may be reformed or eliminated, failing to change the underlying system makes their reemergence inevitable.

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