Senate Select Committee on Intelligence Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said she is encouraged that the National Security Agency is pushing back against inaccurate press reports about its surveillance programs as she pushes for greater transparency and a review of the nation’s intelligence operations.
“I'm delighted that they're speaking out,” she told the Washington Examiner. “They're standing up and this is good.”
NSA Director Gen. Keith Alexander on Wednesday denied a report in the Washington Post that the NSA had broken into Google and Yahoo data centers without their knowledge, saying the agency must obtain a court order to gain access to privately held information.
He also said previous reports in papers that the U.S. had collected millions of records on French and German citizens were wrong. Those countries’ governments, he said, passed along that information to help protect U.S. and allied troops in war zones.
Since former NSA contractor Edward Snowden first leaked details of controversial U.S. surveillance programs, Feinstein has generally defended the collection of bulk email and phone data on millions of Americans. She said the programs are vital to helping thwart terrorist attacks and save lives.
But Feinstein said a line had been crossed after reports last week that the U.S. spied on 35 world leaders, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel. She said she is “totally opposed” to the collection of intelligence on U.S. allies and vowed to launch an end-to-end review of the surveillance.
During an interview Thursday, Feinstein said the NSA had the most oversight of any intelligence agency and suggested that her review would focus on U.S. government spying that falls outside of the NSA's purview.
“We've had nine hearings in the last year on just [the NSA's requests] to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court,” she said. “There's the attorney general supervising, there's the FISA court and then there are all these programs out there with no oversight.
“So we're going to do a review of all of the intelligence programs — everything,” she said, noting she planned on hiring additional staff to carry out the investigation.
Feinstein and Intelligence Committee Vice Chairman Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., have authored a bill bringing more transparency to elements of the NSA's surveillance program.
That measure, which passed the Intelligence Committee on Thursday, would require an annual report on the total number of queries to the NSA's phone metadata database and the number of times searches develop into an FBI investigation of a terrorist plot.
It would also, among other provisions, prohibit the review of bulk communication records unless there is a “reasonable articulable suspicion” of association with international terrorism.
But several senators believe the bill falls far short of placing limits on the collection of the data and making the FISA court process fairer.
Top critics of the U.S. government's spying programs, including Sens. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., Mark Udall, D-Colo., and Rand Paul, R-Ky., are pushing a bill that would prohibit the bulk collection of Americans' records and install a civil liberties advocate to argue significant cases before the FISA court.
As a member of the intelligence panel, Wyden voted against the Feinstein-Chambliss bill Thursday, slamming the measure for "maintaining business as usual" and pledging to "strenuously" oppose its advancement, along with any other similar bill.
"More and more Americans are saying that they refuse to give up their constitutionally guaranteed liberties for the appearance of security: the intelligence committee has passed a bill that ignores that message," he said in a statement.
Wyden could try to offer his bill as an amendment to the upcoming must-pass defense authorization bill, but told The Hill earlier this week that it was too early in the process to plot a strategy to force a full Senate vote.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., has teamed up with Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., the key architect of the Patriot Act, a law that bolstered government surveillance powers after the Sept. 11 attacks, to introduce another measure reforming intelligence operations.
Sensenbrenner has said he regrets giving intelligence agencies such broad spying powers and would like to see the programs reined in.
The Leahy-Sensenbrenner bill, dubbed the USA Freedom Act, would end the bulk daily collection of virtually all Americans' phone records and impose new limits on the retention of data. It would also install a “special advocate” to promote privacy interests in the FISA court.
Transparency measures would be introduced as well, forcing the government to make public secret legal interpretations and allowing companies to reveal the amount of spying orders they receive.
After the Intelligence Committee passed Feinstein's bill Thursday, she pledged to work with Leahy to get a measure to the Senate floor as soon as possible. But it remains unclear whether or how they would merge the two bills.
When asked, a Judiciary Committee spokesman said Leahy looks forward to reviewing the Intelligence Committee's measure.
“He believes it is time for serious and meaningful reforms, which is why he joined with Congressman Sensenbrenner and more than 100 members of Congress in both the Senate and the House to introduce the [bill],” said the spokesman.