A step in the right direction
Changes in National Security Agency intelligence gathering, announced last week by President Obama, are modest but important.
The most significant of those is a two-step move away from the current practice by which the NSA itself stores all of the "meta-data" it electronically collects - the numbers, sources duration and destinations of millions of cellphone calls, texts and other computer-based communication.
All of that information already exists in other databases - phone companies, internet service providers and so on.
Under the new protocol, the NSA would have to obtain permission from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court for access to specific records it now holds. If it wants access to a suspected terrorist's contacts with others, it will have to get court-approved access, for example.
That's the first, transitional step. Later, the NSA would stop collecting the records, which would be held by the phone and Internet services. It then would have to obtain specific subpoenas to search those databases.
The change is significant because it would prevent the government from using the data for any purpose other than court-certified national security purposes.
Yes, the system is imperfect because the FISA Court is not so much a court as a part of the security apparatus. That's why Congress should approve a bill providing the appointment of privacy advocates - lawyers who would be able to challenge the subpoenas at the FISA Court.
There are exceptions, as there must be, for procedures during national emergencies. But as a matter of routine, the changes would be a step back from the government's carte blanche acquisition and perusal of records and a barricade against further adventures on that path.