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Intelligence Squared Debate: Mass Collection of US Phone Records Violates the Fourth Amendment

by robertrosenkranz on July 8, 2016

Debate Overview

The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution protects “[t]he right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures,” stating that this right “shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.” In 2013, the disclosures of former National Security Agency… (NSA) contractor Edward Snowden prompted a close re-examining of these rights. Snowden’s leaks revealed that the NSA had collected US phone records in mass quantities as part of a much larger domestic surveillance program, causing many to question the constitutionality of these practices. Earlier this year, Congress allowed certain sections of the 2001 Patriot Act to expire on June 1, including the section that permitted the NSA’s bulk collection of phone records. The following day, Congress passed the USA Freedom Act, which allows bulk collection to resume during a 180-day transition period, after which the NSA must request permission to obtain specific records.

The question still remains a vital one: Does the Fourth Amendment prevent the government from legally obtaining Americans’ phone records without a warrant, and do the actions of the NSA constitute unreasonable search and seizure? Intelligence Squared US (IQ2US) partnered with the National Constitution Center to answer these questions and more on October 7, 2014. The two organizations called on two teams of expert panelists to debate the motion, “Mass Collection of US Phone Records Violates the Fourth Amendment.”

The Debaters:

The IQ2US panelists debating for the motion were Alex Abdo, staff attorney for the ACLU Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project, and Elizabeth Wydra, chief counsel at the Constitutional Accountability Center.

Debating against the motion was Stewart Baker, a former general counsel to the NSA and former assistant secretary of homeland security. He was joined by John Yoo, a UC Berkeley law professor and former Justice Department lawyer.

The Research:

For this constitutional debate, the panelists sourced ACLU v. Clapper, a case that has challenged the NSA’s mass data collection before the Second Circuit Court of Appeals in New York City. Their research included various legal opinions on the case that explored the role of government, the right to digital privacy, and how both relate to Americans’ constitutional rights. Other sources detailed the history of the NSA’s surveillance program, its dragnet methods of data collection, and exactly what information it collects. A number of the panelists’ sources struck a distinction between the legality and constitutionality of these practices. Others explored the history of the Supreme Court’s rulings in regard to the Fourth Amendment expectation of privacy. Above all, the research seemed to question not only whether the NSA’s scope of surveillance is constitutional, but whether it is necessary to keep Americans safe.

Pre-Debate Poll Results:

Prior to the debate, 46 percent of audience members voted for the motion, while 17 percent voted against it and 37 percent remained undecided.

To watch the full IQ2US debate and find out the final results, visit: mass-collection- of-
u-s- phone-records- violates-the- fourth-amendment

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