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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.

“It has never been proven to Senator (Ron) Wyden and me that any of the bulk collection has provided uniquely valuable intelligence that’s resulted in the disruption of any plots,” he said.

Udall and colleagues, including Republican Senator Rand Paul, criticize the broad authority bestowed on the N.S.A. and the Federal Bureau of Investigation by provisions of the Patriot Act, passed shortly after the September 11, 2001 attacks.

Intelligence leaders interpret the act’s Article 215 as allowing the bulk collection of personal data, which rights groups like the American Civil Liberties Union argue is a violation of the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition of unreasonable search and seizure.

Following a public and congressional uproar, Obama announced his support for open debate on the issue.

Top-secret documents were declassified which revealed the extent of violations of privacy by the N.S.A., as well as the poor quality of some internal procedures.

These include frequent failures by agents to abide by orders of the secret court established under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) to process requests for surveillance warrants.

“I think it’s a good start, but in all honesty, they’ve only released what they’ve been forced to by FOIAs (Freedom of Information Act requests) and congressional statements and public pressure,” ACLU legislative counsel Michelle Richardson told AFP.

Obama has vowed to introduce greater transparency regarding the functions of the FISA court, which is composed of 11 judges whose decisions are secret.

Clapper has said the number of court orders mandating surveillance would be published in the future.

Senators, in the legislation they unveiled Wednesday, call for creation of a “constitutional advocate” to argue key cases before the FISA court and serve as counterweight to the government.

Reformers believe they have sufficient momentum to bring about reform.

In July, Democrats and Republicans in the House of Representatives very nearly succeeded in passing a measure that would have ended bulk data collection, a near-victory they described as a warning to the White House to take the reform efforts seriously.

Photo Credit: AFP/John Macdougall

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