As the international community grows wary over recent disclosures that the National Security Agency (NSA) was spying on global leaders, support for reform of secret intelligence gathering is growing in both houses of Congress.
The NSA first came under fire five months ago when former contractor Edward Snowden leaked classified information on surveillance programs that track telephone and Internet data. Outcry over the programs recently intensified after new revelations that programs have been spying on world leaders for years. Newly released documents also suggested that the NSA had been collecting data on citizens in Germany, Spain, France and Mexico, though NSA director Keith Alexander rejected those accusations while testifying before the House Intelligence Committee on Tuesday, asserting that the information had come from spy agencies inside those countries.
Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and Representative Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI) on Tuesday introduced the USA Freedom Act, bipartisan legislation supported by dozens of lawmakers and meant to restrict the federal government’s unchecked surveillance powers. Ironically, Sensenbrenner also co-wrote the original PATRIOT Act, but has since changed his position, saying the Snowden leaks prove abuse on the federal level.
The proposed reform would require the government to release public reports disclosing how often certain spying powers are used and obligating the NSA to dispose of any information inadvertently collected on American citizens. The law would also ensure that bulk collection does not continue under a separate section of the PATRIOT Act. Still, the law would permit the NSA to continue gathering information using guidelines similar to those outlined in the original PATRIOT Act.
According to Leahy and Sensenbrenner, the bill will no longer allow the government to “employ a carte-blanche approach to record collection or enact secret laws by covertly reinterpreting congressional intent.”
The proposed legislation now has 16 co-sponsors — three Republicans and 13 Democrats — in the Senate. In the House, the proposed bill has bipartisan support among at least 70 co-sponsors – six of whom originally voted against the Amash-Conyers amendment that would have defunded the NSA’s bulk data collection program in July.
Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee and a strong advocate of the NSA, stated on Monday that she was “totally opposed” to the United States spying on allies, and, for the first time, backed efforts to review all surveillance programs. Feinstein added that her committee was completely unaware that the NSA had been spying on foreign leaders, just as President Barack Obama maintained earlier this week.
Feinstein is expected to introduce her own legislation sometime this week. Though the legislation has not been released yet, the Democratic senator has stated that she wants the data collection program to continue to exist, but with more “transparency and privacy protections.”
Critics of the NSA’s surveillance programs, however, are not satisfied with Feinstein’s coming legislation and fear it would explicitly authorize particular powers for the NSA.
Though the president has not remarked on the reform bill, White House press secretary Jay Carney said on Monday that the Obama administration “recognizes there need to be additional constraints on how we gather and use intelligence.”
American citizens are also concerned about the NSA programs, and on Saturday approximately 2,000 demonstrators rallied in Washington to demand Congress investigate.
Echoing the concerns of citizens and world powers, Leahy and Sensenbrenner urged more lawmakers to back their efforts “to ensure that such abuses are never repeated and that no false trade-off between freedom and security is allowed to be decided secretly, behind closed doors, ever again.”
AFP Photo/Paul J. Richards