Lawmakers’ concerns about Americans’ privacy, in particular the National Security Agency’s domestic surveillance programs, have not dampened over recess.
In fact, some lawmakers are making the argument that the ramped-up state of national security that has prompted embassy closures across North Africa and the Middle East amid an al-Qaida terrorist alert only elevates the need to strengthen Americans’ trust in U.S. counterterrorism tactics.
“It is very important to emphasize that the latest security alert and threat warning remind us how critical the work of our intelligence and counterterrorism people and agencies is to our nation,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said in an interview. “It demands and deserves the respect and trust of the American people, which is why we need my reform proposals to preserve, reinforce, and bolster the trust and credibility of those institutions.”
He added, “Most especially the FISA Court. “¦ It’s an anomaly right now because it’s a black box.”
Blumenthal is slated to give a major policy address on FISA court reform Thursday at Harvard Law School, arguing for the need to better balance Americans’ privacy while maintaining strong national security provisions. The FISA courts govern requests for surveillance warrants against suspected foreign-intelligence agents inside the U.S.
He is pushing for two bills he introduced with Sens. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Tom Udall, D-N.M., just before Congress adjourned last week that would provide a special advocate to the FISA courts to argue for Americans’ right to privacy and another to change the FISA judge selection process to force greater diversity of viewpoints and backgrounds.
It is unclear which if any reforms will become law, but policy analysts agree that momentum is growing in Congress to address the scope of the FISA court.
Last month, Rep. Justin Amash, R-Mich., sent a wake-up call to the administration and NSA defenders when he came just a handful of votes shy of succeeding on a measure that would have stopped the NSA’s blanket collection of telephone records of Americans not under suspicion of terrorism ties.
An even strong NSA defender, Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., has suggested reducing how much so-called metadata the NSA retains.
“It’s very likely we’ll see some reform,” said Steven Bucci, a director of foreign policy studies with the Heritage Foundation, who noted that lawmakers’ questions and concerns appear to be intensifying. “Very clearly there is a critical mass of legislators and citizens who disagree with people like me who think this a good balance of privacy and security.”
Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow with the Brookings Institution, said that “the natural compromise hasn’t yet surfaced,” but lawmakers appear intent on some reform.
“I’d predict that Congress will want to do something more than simply register its concerns and complaints,” he said. “There will be ongoing vigorous discussion.”
Blumenthal told National Journal Daily that he sees constitutional freedoms in jeopardy, which he said is even more critical in the face of the latest terrorism alert.
“The core message will be that we can do both — preserve liberty and privacy, and safeguard national security,” he said, previewing his Harvard address. “The challenge is to strike balance.”
Blumenthal is continuing to push to declassify the courts’ opinions because they in effect create law.
“The FISA court is unknown to many Americans. But it exercises vast invisible power,” he said. “The court makes law, but right now it’s secret law, and I think there is a point of consensus here that the law at the very least should be made public, and that is one of the points I’m going to be stressing.”
Blumenthal said that voters have unanswered questions about the government’s surveillance programs.
“I see no prospect of the issue dissipating either in importance or public concern,” he said. “I don’t see the issue going away during the recess. In fact, when I go around the state of Connecticut, a lot of folks are talking about the surveillance, and the good as well as the bad.”
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