Two days after a federal judge found the National Security Agency's program of collecting all American telephone records "almost certainly unconstitutional," an expert panel appointed by President Barack Obama correctly urged him to terminate the overreaching program.
The president should do just that.
Noting that the mass collection of telephone records allows the government to search connections among Americans and foreigners without specific court approval, the report disapprovingly said, "This formulation leaves extremely broad discretion in the hands of government officials to decide for themselves whose records to obtain.''
Judge Richard Leon, in a ruling released Tuesday, aptly described the program as "almost Orwellian."
The "metadata" collection program, under which the NSA compels telephone companies to submit all call records they possess (although not identified by name or address), has already come under increasing criticism in Congress, where Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt. and Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., have introduced legislation to repeal the legal underpinning of the NSA's program.
Reacting to the panel's report, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Leahy said, "The message to the NSA is now coming from every branch of government and from every corner of our nation: You have gone too far. The bulk collection of Americans' data by the U.S. government must end."
The "metadata" program continues to have its supporters, who say it is essential to fighting terrorism. However, the expert panel found it was not essential to preventing attacks, and that any information it obtained could be obtained by other, more justifiable methods, confirming a similar finding by Judge Leon.
A member of the expert panel, former CIA deputy director Michael Morell, said, "We are not in any way recommending the disarming of the intelligence community."
And regardless of the program's effectiveness or lack thereof, it clearly threatens the Fourth Amendment's protection against "unreasonable searches and seizures."
The panel's recommendation that the NSA stop collecting metadata was only one of 46 changes urged for NSA programs and organization. Those changes would include additional judicial safeguards, limits to spying on foreign leaders and less intrusion into private Internet companies.
President Obama is not obliged to accept any of them, but on the telephone metadata program he would be wise to quickly concur.
Questions about NSA operations, however, should not be left to the executive branch alone. The basic law that the NSA relied upon in launching phone metadata collection, a part of the Patriot Act, must be amended to prevent future excesses of this type.
The sooner Congress agrees to take that step, the better.
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