Data-gathering debate

Colorado’s seven members of the House of Representatives reflect ideologies at the far ends of the political spectrum as well as somewhat in the middle, but the possibility of ending the National Security Administration’s broad telephone data collection had them all voting together. Last week, all seven were part of the losing vote, 217 to 205, to halt the NSA’s collection of the locations of calls made to and from the United States.

Colorado’s House delegation’s unanimity has not occurred often.

The data is being gathered from telephone companies and is used to provide clues to the locations of suspected terrorists. The content of the calls is not recorded, nor the precise addresses, but where telephone calls are originating and ending can help substantiate other intelligence information.

Members of House and Senate intelligence committees have known about the data collection, which is permitted in the post-Sept. 11 Patriot Act, but it was not until former NSA contractor Edward Snowden included it in the intelligence information that he released has it received widespread attention. Individual telephone companies retain the data only for a limited period; what the NSA is doing is acquiring and aggregating it.

Snowden claimed that he did what he did to trigger a conversation among Americans about the proper extent of intelligence gathering. He is getting his wish.

The metaphor that is being used is of a haystack, with the NSA computers able to see an otherwise almost invisible needle. It is also pointed out that only recently have there been computers with sufficient capacity to make the critical data connections possible.

The close vote joined libertarian Republicans with Democrats in a House that is controlled by the Republicans. Security officials and Republican Party leadership defended the intelligence gathering, as did the White House, although weakly. “Have we forgotten about the magnitude of Sept. 11 attacks?” they asked.

The result has been a much broader conversation than previously about intelligence gathering in the United States.

It is being pointed out that the U.S. Postal Service records the images of the front and back of all mailed materials – which reveals more information than does the NSA’s telephone-haystack creation, NSA defenders say – while foreign governments who have other ways of gathering intelligence on their citizens express outrage. In some of those countries, commentators point out, it is lower-level police and security departments that are much more intrusive.

To have Republican Representatives Doug Lamborn (Colorado Springs) and Scott Tipton (Cortez) voting with Democrats Diana DeGette (Denver) and Jared Polis (Boulder) indicates a significant issue that cuts across ideological lines in these very partisan times. Good, we say. Let the debate continue.

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