Washington (AFP) – The U.S. Congress launched its effort to reform surveillance law Thursday in the wake of leaker Edward Snowden’s revelation of the vast scope of the government’s digital dragnet.
President Barack Obama insists the electronic espionage exposed by Snowden was legal, but the furore surrounding the leaks convinced many lawmakers of the need for change.
Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and National Security Agency director General Keith Alexander have been called to testify to Congress later in the day.
Topping the agenda: the program that allows the systematic collection of the “metadata” attached to virtually all telephone calls in the United States.
Details of the program were revealed in June by Snowden, a former N.S.A. contractor who alerted the world to what many in Congress describe as abuses of constitutional liberties.
“The balance between Americans’ privacy and security is fundamentally out of whack,” said Democratic Senator Mark Udall.
Udall has helped author draft legislation designed to scale back surveillance of millions of law-abiding citizens.
“Americans with no link to terrorism or espionage should not have to worry that the NSA is vacuuming up their private information,” he said.
“Our critics say we cannot protect both safety and privacy. That is a false choice.”
Telephone numbers, times and durations of calls made via U.S. carriers — but not the content of the conversations — have been stored in an N.S.A. database since 2006.
The secretive agency considers the cache a giant “haystack” which has been obliged to build in order to find the “needles” they believe to be linked to terrorist plots.
The head of the N.S.A. has claimed that 54 terror plots worldwide have been foiled through the program and surveillance of digital international communications.
Udall said that figure does not stand up to scrutiny.