The disconnect provides a good example of a problem I flagged in this post about the Des Moines Register's political coverage. Ever since the Register closed its Washington bureau, Iowans are less likely to know what our representatives in Congress are doing on our behalf.
The scope of National Security Agency surveillance powers under the 2001 Patriot Act has been a major national news story and topic of intense debate since former CIA contractor Edward Snowden revealed classified information about the NSA's massive collection of Americans' cell phone records. The Des Moines Register's editors have written many commentaries on the subject. Most recently, a lead editorial for the April 19 edition was titled, "Congress must reform Patriot Act now." Excerpt:
By June, Congress must renew Section 215 of the Patriot Act, which is the legal basis for the bulk collection of cell phone records. Lawmakers are not likely to let the law expire entirely, but it should not be renewed without serious reforms to protect the constitutional rights of U.S. citizens.
A bill to do just that, called the USA Freedom Act, may be introduced this week. [...]
Defenders of the NSA searches say collecting phone numbers alone is harmless. But phone numbers reveal a great deal of private information based on calls made to or received from everyone from doctors to debt collectors.
Phone records can legitimately be used to investigate terrorist threats, but the government should not have limitless access to cell phone records. [...]
As Congress reconsiders Section 215, one concern will be assuring the executive branch has the power to protect national security. Fair enough, but that power should be limited and subject to oversight by the courts, Congress and the public. The scope of phone records collected must be narrowed. Phone databases should be held by private phone companies, not the government. A public-interest advocate should be appointed to represent privacy and civil liberties interests before the FISA court.
Threats to national security can be met without compromising constitutional guarantees of liberty if all three branches of government do their jobs. Congress should do its job now by enacting these reforms before renewing Section 215 of the Patriot Act.
On May 9, the Register's editorial board returned to this issue in a commentary titled, "Ruling means Congress can't punt on cellphone spying." Excerpt:
The legality of Section 215 of the Patriot Act is now in serious doubt. A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit ruled unanimously that the act does not authorize creation of a "staggering" database of domestic cellphone records with the idea that the government may need to investigate some of those records in specific terrorism investigations.
If this ruling stands, then the NSA will lose its legal justification for collecting phone data. Thus, other than allowing the to law expire on June 1, Congress has two options: Amend the Patriot Act to make the NSA cellphone searches legal, or amend it to authorize only government anti-terrorism surveillance that does not violate Americans' right of privacy.
There is bipartisan support for latter option in the form of the USA Freedom Act. It should pass.
On Wednesday of this week (May 13), the USA Freedom Act came to the House floor and passed with strong bipartisan support. Two of Iowa's four representatives voted for the bill: Democrat Dave Loebsack (IA-02) and Republican David Young (IA-03). Republicans Rod Blum (IA-01) and Steve King (IA-04) voted against the bill, for opposite reasons. Blum didn't think the USA Freedom Act did enough to protect Americans' Fourth Amendment rights, while King warned that "data disarmament" would deprive the intelligence community of information that has great "investigative value."
I looked for the Register's write-up on this story, expecting to find further comments from the Iowans in Congress and perhaps more discussion of the substantive changes to Section 215. The American Civil Liberties Union and Electronic Frontier Foundation are advocating for stronger Congressional language to rein in the NSA. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell shares Steve King's view that the USA Freedom Act goes too far in restricting intelligence-gathering. Perhaps the Register might report on how Iowa's Republican U.S. Senators Chuck Grassley and Joni Ernst feel about extending the Patriot Act, with or without major revisions.
I didn't find anything on the Register's website or in Thursday's print edition, so I figured a more extensive report might be in the works for Friday. When I didn't see any news about the issue in today's paper, I asked several editors whether I might have overlooked the story. The newspaper's "content strategist for politics" Annah Backstrom confirmed that the Register didn't report on the USA Freedom Act vote.
I am struggling to understand why a newspaper would publish two "Congress must act" editorials in the span of the month but not run a story when Congress acted on the policy in question.
Iowans are subject to the NSA's bulk data collection, just like everyone else in this country. We deserve to know how our representatives weigh the competing interests of civil liberties and efforts to prevent terrorist attacks. We deserve to know how the Iowans voted on extending the Patriot Act, and why they took that stand.
When a candidate announces plans to run for Congress or a poll appears on any U.S. House race in Iowa, the Register's reporters are all over the story. I like Congressional campaign news as much as the next political junkie, but what elected officials end up doing in Washington is more important than how they audition for the job.
I stand by what I wrote last week: there must be some way for the Register to do a better job reporting on Iowa's representatives in the federal government. Perhaps several Gannett newspapers could share a Washington-based correspondent, or someone based in Des Moines could keep an eye on the House and Senate roll-call votes for anything newsworthy.
Any relevant comments are welcome in this thread.