Members of the US Congress are considering 11 new legislative reforms to rein in the National Security Agency’s (NSA) domestic spying program, in a major shift of political opinion in the eight weeks since the first revelations from the whistleblower Edward Snowden.
The proposals range from repealing the legal foundations of key US surveillance powers to more moderate reforms of the secretive court proceedings for spying on US citizens. If enacted, the laws would represent the first rollback of the agency’s powers since Sept. 11, 2001.
The Guardian has spoken to five lawmakers involved in efforts to curtail the NSA, amid growing consensus that the bulk collection of millions of telephone records needs to be overhauled.
Republican Representative Justin Amash, whose measure to end the indiscriminate collection of telephone data was narrowly defeated 10 days ago, said he was certain the next push would succeed.
“The people who voted ‘no’ are hopeful to get another opportunity to vote ‘yes’ on reforming this program and other programs,” he said.
In the US Senate, Democratic Senator Ron Wyden said there was “strong, bipartisan support for fundamental reforms,” a direct consequence of revelations about the nature and power of NSA surveillance.
“Eight weeks ago, we wouldn’t have had this debate in the Congress,” he said. “Eight weeks ago there wouldn’t have been this extraordinary vote.”
On Thursday last week, Snowden was granted temporary asylum in Russia. The White House said it was “extremely disappointed” in the decision, and hinted that US President Barack Obama may pull out of a bilateral summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin next month. However, even as Snowden was leaving the Moscow airport where he has been holed up for more than a month, Obama was telling key members of Congress at a meeting at the Oval Office that he was “open to suggestions” for reforming the NSA surveillance programs that have embroiled his administration in controversy.
Wyden, a long-standing critic of dragnet surveillance, backing a range of legislative efforts that would end bulk telephone records acquisition and revamp the foreign intelligence surveillance (FISA) court, which grants the NSA legal authorization for its mass collection.
Several senators are supporting a bill introduced on Thursday last week by Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal, introducing a public advocate into some proceedings at the court, which currently only hears the US government’s case. In the past 30 years, it has turned down just 11 of the nearly 34,000 warrant requests submitted by federal authorities.
Senior administration officials have indicated they are open to Blumenthal’s proposals , which would not in themselves curtail the NSA’s powers.
Another measure directed at the FISA court is being brought by Democratic Representative Adam Schiff, who sits on the powerful House Intelligence Committee. Under his plan, the court’s judges, who are currently selected by the chief justice of the supreme court, would be appointed instead by the president, a process that would require them to undergo a congressional confirmation process.
“Then you have these judges publicly vetted on their Fourth Amendment views prior to being placed on the court,” Schiff said, referring to the constitutional freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures.