Dianne Feinstein gets an "F." So does John Boehner.
Patrick Leahy, Ron Wyden, and Justin Amash each earned an "A."
At least that's according to a new congressional scorecard from privacy and civil-liberties groups measuring how lawmakers stand on government spying, an issue that continues to slowly gain traction more than a year after Edward Snowden's leaks exposed classified bulk-data surveillance programs at the National Security Agency.
The scorecard, developed by reddit, the Sunlight Foundation, Demand Progress and others, grades lawmakers from "A" to "F," depending on their votes or sponsorship of certain pieces of recent surveillance legislation. Its release coincides with the liftoff of a Greenpeace blimp this morning that hovered above the NSA's data center in Utah and displayed the message "Illegal spying below."
The letter grades are meant to add clarity to a muddled reform process concerning the proper scope of government surveillance of phone and Internet data, said Rainey Reitman, activist director with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, one of the organizing groups.
"Congress has been struggling with what they're going to do about surveillance reform, and for the general public, this has been a very confusing debate," Reitman said. "Because, often there are going to be bills that imply they are going to help with surveillance issues when, in fact, they are fake reforms that would merely entrench the spying."
In the House, points were awarded for support of the Surveillance State Repeal Act, introduced last year by Rep. Rush Holt (who gets an "A"), and the original USA Freedom Act, which was authored by Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (also an "A") and sought to end the NSA's bulk collection of U.S. phone metadata.
But points were subtracted if a House member voted for the "watered-down" version of the Freedom Act, which passed the chamber 303-121 in May. Powerful tech companies such as Google and Facebook and privacy advocates dropped their support of that bill as eleventh-hour negotiations among House leadership, intelligence officials, and the White House altered the language of key sections of the bill.
In the Senate, points were awarded for sponsorship of the original USA Freedom Act, introduced by Sen. Patrick Leahy, and points were deducted for cosponsorship of Sen. Dianne Feinstein's FISA Improvements Act, which civil-liberties groups have routinely lambasted as codifying the current powers of the NSA and other intelligence agencies. Even Feinstein has acknowledged that her bill likely does not have a path forward, however.
Several high-profile senators remain unranked in the scorecard for not being "significantly involved" in the debate on NSA spying. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, and Republican Sens. Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, and Marco Rubio—a trio of potential GOP presidential candidates in 2016—are all listed with a question mark.
Paul's designation is especially notable, as he has typically been an outspoken critic of domestic government surveillance, and has signaled that an aggressive anti-NSA stance could be a central plank of his possible 2016 platform. But organizers reiterated that the scorecard was meant to only reflect support or opposition to key legislation.
"We were tempted to say, if you're not doing anything good, you should get an 'F,' " Reitman said. "But we thought, for right now, we should give these people question marks" until the Senate votes on an NSA bill.
This article appears in the June 30, 2014 edition of NJ Daily.