NSA Surveillance Back in Crosshairs on Hill

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WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 06: Chairman and Vice Chairman of the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) (L) and U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-GA) (R), speak to members of the media about the National Security Agency (NSA) collevting phone records June 6, 2013 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. According to reports, the NSA has collected phone data, under a provision of the Patriot Act, of Verizon customers in teh U.S.
National Journal
Stacy Kaper
Oct. 27, 2013, 8:09 a.m.

Sen­ate In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tee lead­ers plan to ad­vance le­gis­la­tion be­hind closed doors Tues­day — iron­ic­ally aimed at lift­ing the cloak-and-dag­ger opa­city of the Na­tion­al Se­cur­ity Agency’s con­tro­ver­sial do­mest­ic-sur­veil­lance meth­ods.

By tight­en­ing or co­di­fy­ing cur­rent prac­tices and adding trans­par­ency and ac­count­ab­il­ity meas­ures, the le­gis­la­tion from Chair­wo­man Di­anne Fein­stein, D-Cal­if., and Vice Chair­man Saxby Cham­b­liss, R-Ga., is a re­sponse to crit­ics who have ques­tioned the NSA’s ra­tionale for secretly col­lect­ing phone and In­ter­net re­cords of mil­lions of Amer­ic­ans.

The bill they plan to move through the com­mit­tee pro­tects the NSA’s power to con­duct sweep­ing sur­veil­lance ap­proved by the For­eign In­tel­li­gence Sur­veil­lance Court and is un­likely to go any­where near ap­peas­ing re­form ad­voc­ates.

“It seems as though the In­tel­li­gence com­mit­tees are work­ing on bills de­signed to al­low them to say they are ad­van­cing re­forms without fun­da­ment­ally chan­ging much of any­thing,” said Ju­li­an Sanc­hez, a re­search fel­low with the liber­tari­an-lean­ing Cato In­sti­tute.

“The le­gis­la­tion is de­signed to al­low bulk col­lec­tion to con­tin­ue, to per­mit Amer­ic­ans to be quer­ied…. It is not in any sort of fun­da­ment­al way rein­ing in the in­ter­pret­a­tions of their au­thor­ity.”

Sens. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., Mark Ud­all, D-Colo., Richard Blu­menth­al, D-Conn., and Rand Paul, R-Ky., are among those push­ing le­gis­la­tion that would go much fur­ther by ab­ol­ish­ing the NSA’s bulk phone and In­ter­net data min­ing of or­din­ary Amer­ic­ans. Al­though Wyden and Ud­all serve on the In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tee, their bill is un­likely to be ad­op­ted there. That’s be­cause the com­mit­tee is pop­u­lated by mem­bers who gen­er­ally want to pre­serve and strengthen the power of the in­tel­li­gence com­munity, rather than hinder it.

Their best bet may be the Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee. Chair­man Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., plans to in­tro­duce bi­par­tis­an bicam­er­al le­gis­la­tion with Rep. Jim Sensen­bren­ner, R-Wis., as soon as Tues­day that would end bulk col­lec­tion of Amer­ic­ans’ phone and In­ter­net re­cords.

The NSA’s sur­veil­lance sys­tems are ex­pec­ted to be the sub­ject of wide de­bate across Cap­it­ol Hill this week. The House In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tee plans to hold a pub­lic hear­ing on the is­sue Tues­day.

Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Cal­if., an In­tel­li­gence pan­el mem­ber who is push­ing three bills to re­form NSA sur­veil­lance, said he ex­pects some sort of re­form bill to ad­vance through the com­mit­tee soon. But he ad­ded that the ques­tion is what can be worked out with the Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee (which is also ex­pec­ted to pro­duce its own bill) and ul­ti­mately ad­vance through the House.

No one fight­ing this battle can for­get that an amend­ment from Rep. Justin Amash, R”‘Mich., to halt the NSA’s bulk data col­lec­tion failed on a vote of 205-217 this sum­mer after heavy lob­by­ing from the White House and in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cials.

“It is likely we will get a bill mov­ing through the In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tee,” Schiff said. “The big bot­tle­neck will be when it would oth­er­wise reach the floor — wheth­er there is enough con­fid­ence that pois­on-pill amend­ments can be kept out of the bill and wheth­er there is enough meet­ing of the minds between the Ju­di­ciary and In­tel­li­gence com­mit­tees.”

In the Sen­ate, Leahy is al­most cer­tain to face strong push-back from Fein­stein, who be­sides hold­ing the very power­ful post as head of the In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tee is also the No. 2 Demo­crat on the Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee.

Her strategy is clear: as­sert her­self as a lead­er on the is­sue with an olive-branch pro­pos­al that makes mod­est re­forms while pro­tect­ing the status quo.

Fein­stein and Cham­b­liss were among the first lead­ers in Con­gress to de­fend the NSA’s ac­tions earli­er this year when rev­el­a­tions about the sur­veil­lance pro­grams were thrown in­to the spot­light by NSA leak­er Ed­ward Snowden. The pair ar­gued that the sur­veil­lance is vi­tal for in­filt­rat­ing ter­ror­ist net­works.

At a hear­ing on the top­ic last month, Fein­stein made no bones about her mo­tiv­a­tion for tak­ing on the is­sue. She called sur­veil­lance “law­ful,” “ef­fect­ive,” and “con­duc­ted un­der care­ful over­sight,” but said these activ­it­ies have un­fairly suffered a bad rap.

“I be­lieve that the leaks of clas­si­fied pro­grams and the way that those leaks have been por­trayed … has led to an un­for­tu­nate but very real amount of pub­lic skep­ti­cism and dis­trust of the in­tel­li­gence com­munity, and the Na­tion­al Se­cur­ity Agency in par­tic­u­lar,” she said. “It is clear to me that the pub­lic has a mis­per­cep­tion that must be cor­rec­ted.”

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