Rep. Hank Johnson issued a statement with comments for the Judiciary Hearing on Oversight of the Justice Department this afternoon. He’s calling for revisions to the Espionage Act and the law covering pen registers — the statute allowing government agents to get phone records without a warrant.
The public outcry in response to the AP investigation raises several important questions involving privacy, the First Amendment, and investigating leaks of national security information when the safety of American lives is at stake.
I strongly believe that Congress must protect the free flow of information and ideas under the First Amendment. This is why I voted for the Free Flow of information Act, a federal shield law that would have required judicial oversight over media subpoenas. This vital legislation, which was blocked by Republicans in the Senate and opposed by some of the same Members of the Committee who are shocked by the AP investigation, would likely have avoided much of the alarm caused by this investigation.
Protecting the freedom of the press also requires that we strike a careful balance in preventing national security leaks where there is a very real threat to American lives. As a member of the Armed Services Committee, I am acutely aware of the threats that face our Nation and the need for confidentiality when confronting these threats.
The public outcry in response to the AP investigation also illustrates the public’s alarm with the lack of privacy protections for our everyday communications. Every day, the phone records of countless Americans are subject to criminal investigations without a warrant based on probable cause. Investigators need only a subpoena to obtain the numbers you call and receive, as well as emails and text messages that are more than 180 days old. Warrantless surveillance brings us ever-closer to the surveillance state described by George Orwell where “every sound you made was overheard,—and, except in darkness, every moment scrutinized.”
This issue demonstrates the urgent necessity to modernize laws that have been outpaced by technology and the ease of collecting massive amounts information about Americans. We need to modernize the Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986 by requiring a warrant for surveillance involving communications, phone records, and movements. We need to update the Espionage Act of 1917 to limit prosecutions to cases involving real harms to our national security.
Laws must actually reflect the times we live in, and not continue to be outpaced by the new technologies that challenge our rights.