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Curbs needed on gov’t right to spy

Unanimity over how much power intelligence agencies should have to pry into Americans’ personal affairs has disappeared with reports during the past few years of unconstitutional invasions of privacy. Victims of that have ranged from high-ranking government officials down to millions of other people.

So, passage by the U.S. Senate of legislation to revive surveillance powers that had expired was far from unopposed. The vote last week on the measure was 80-16. Members of the House of Representatives will have to approve it, too, for the bill to become law.

It is aimed at allowing law enforcement agencies to keep tabs on terrorists and spies. Leaders of both the Democratic and Republican parties have given it their stamp of approval.

If enacted, the measure would include new safeguards sought by civil liberties groups. Still, it gives the government sweeping authority. According to The Associated Press, one provision allows surveillance “without establishing that the subject is acting on behalf of an international terrorist organization…” It is vague, sweeping power such as that which has aroused concern regarding civil liberties — specifically, the right to privacy.

The Justice Department’s reaction to one amendment of the bill is instructive. The change, adopted in a 77-19 Senate vote, would strengthen third-party oversight of some surveillance activities. Government spokesman Marc Raimondi said it would “unacceptably degrade our ability to conduct surveillance of terrorists, spies and other national security threats.”

He did not mention it also would degrade the government’s ability to spy on all Americans.

Some surveillance authority is vital. But reports of abuses for several years make it clear there simply must be curbs on the government’s ability to spy on us at will. Let us hope the House of Representatives includes some in its version of the bill.

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