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.
Other measures seek to make government surveillance more transparent. This week, the Democratic Senator Al Franken introduced a bill to force the US government to regularly report on the number of US citizens whose data is being collated by the NSA. It would also permit Internet companies to disclose the number of requests they receive for data.
“The American public deserves more transparency and my bill goes a long toward doing that,” Franken said.
A similar bill has been introduced by his Democratic colleague, Jeff Merkley, who wants to compel the administration to disclose the key legal ruling from the FISA court that governs how telephone records are collected.
However, there are other legislators who are pushing for more profound reforms. They include the Republican James Sensenbrenner, author of the post-Sept. 11, 2001, Patriot Act, which the NSA has used to justify some of its data collection methods. His support of the Amash amendment last week revealed quite how far Congress has shifted since the publication of the leaks.
Sensenbrenner said the Patriot Act was being interpreted to allow for forms of surveillance that were never envisaged when it was passed. He now supports an Amash-style bill that would prevent the NSA from hoovering up telephone records without specific justification.
Most of the efforts focus on constraining the NSA’s ability to spy on US citizens. There is less congressional support for limiting its spying on foreigners’ Internet communication.
One major exception is a measure introduced by Rush Holt, a Democrat, which would repeal both the Patriot Act and the FISA Amendments Act of 2008.
Holt, who previously served on the intelligence committee, represents the most skeptical wing of Congress.
“I learned that the heads of the NSA and other intelligence agencies are schooled in secrecy and deception. You can’t always believe everything they say,” he said.
“They say these have stopped 50 attacks or something like that, and though I’m not on the intelligence committee right now, and I can’t speak item-by-item, I can be pretty sure that there’s probably not too much truth to it,” he said.
His bill represents the most radical congressional attempt at surveillance reform. Its prospects are not good, particularly because it would curtail Prism, one of the NSA programs that monitors Internet communications overseas.
Schiff said Prism was more popular in Congress for two reasons. First, Prism “is focused outside the US and not on US citizens.” Second, Schiff said its effectiveness is “much more substantial” than the telephone records collection.
Intelligence officials have struggled to show how collecting bulk phone metadata was critical to foiling terrorist plots.
Lawmakers may fume at the idea of collecting telephone records of US citizens, but they seem less bothered that the NSA can freely access the e-mails of foreigners.
Even those who do have concerns about Prism, such as Wyden, are looking for ways to ensure that citizens are not ensnared in it, rather than ending the program.
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