Lawmakers want to shake up a controversial surveillance program that allows U.S. intelligence officials to peek at the phone records of millions of Americans after details of the government's spying methods were leaked to the public.
Two camps are forming along untraditional lines on how to rein in the National Security Agency and how much of its power to strip away.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., introduced a proposal that would limit NSA collection to metadata -- the who, what and when of a phone call -- and specifically bar federal agencies from building a database that includes the content of calls between ordinary citizens. The NSA has insisted that it never listened in on conversations, only tracked information like phone numbers and times of calls.
Feinstein's legislation also would limit use of a national phone record database to suspected terrorists and associates while shortening the length of time those records could be held. The NSA would be required to provide more frequent reports on the use of these programs.
The legislation, dubbed the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, is expected to emerge from the Senate Intelligence Committee in October with support from Democrats and Republicans who largely see the NSA as a victim of espionage. In a rare public meeting of the committee late last month, Feinstein joined Republicans and the head of the NSA in blaming the media for public paranoia about the government's spying methods after they were leaked by former NSA and CIA contractor Edward Snowden.
“The surveillance activities conducted under FISA and other programs operated by the National Security Agency are lawful, they are effective, and they are conducted under careful oversight,” Feinstein said. “Collecting timely and actionable intelligence is critical to our nation's security and the NSA surveillance programs have prevented dozens of terrorist attacks against the United States and numerous other countries around the world.”
But a bipartisan group of senators want to further curb spying on lawful citizens. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., joined two of his Democratic colleagues and Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky -- who Wyden called “an exceptionally influential voice for freedom and liberty in the Republican Party” -- to introduce a bill that would prohibit the bulk collection of phone records by the government. The bill also would create a constitutional officer to monitor the secret proceedings of the federal surveillance court, which has made dozens of controversial rulings to expand government spying authority without public knowledge.
Wyden and Paul also want some of those rulings to be released and provide an avenue for residents to challenge surveillance methods as unconstitutional.
“The idea of whether we're spying on Americans without warrants is a debate we should be having in public,” Paul said.
The House wrestled with a similar inter-party battle earlier this summer when a coalition of Republicans and Democrats narrowly lost an effort to strip funding from the domestic spying program. The Senate Intelligence Committee is scheduled to meet early this month to finalize a reform measure for the full Senate to take up.
Intelligence officials, scrambling to regain public trust after the Snowden saga, are anticipating congressional changes to programs deemed sacred and necessary following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, though the final product remains uncertain. It's possible Congress will introduce limits to how long data can be stored and how many degrees of separation from a terrorism suspect the NSA can track. NSA Director James Clapper promised more openness from the country's surveillance community, but stressed it will come at a cost.
“Transparency, as I said before, is a two-edged sword,” Clapper said. “It's transparent for the American people. It's transparent for adversaries, too."