The Senate intelligence committee’s top Democrat and Republican are writing legislation that would leave U.S. spy programs intact, letting collection of bulk phone records on millions of Americans continue.
The bill would tweak the National Security Agency’s practices, codifying current requirements that analysts have a “reasonable, articulable suspicion” in order to search the phone records and barring surveillance of call content, Senator Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat and chairman of the intelligence panel, said during a hearing today in Washington.
The measure -- one of a flurry of legislation proposed recently by lawmakers to rein in the spy programs -- would require the NSA to publicly report statistics about its activities, as well as requiring the head of the NSA to be confirmed by the Senate, Feinstein said.
“It’s clear to me that the public has a misperception and that must be changed,” Feinstein said.
During the hearing, lawmakers were asked by Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and NSA Director and Army General Keith Alexander not to damage the surveillance programs with overly-restrictive legislation, while they conceded that tweaks could be made.
Legislation is needed to address the “distrust” of the spy programs that Americans have developed since being exposed in June by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, Feinstein said. Other lawmakers on the panel have proposed legislation that would bar NSA from intercepting communications from citizens not suspected of wrongdoing.
Yesterday, Republican Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, a favorite of Tea Party activists, stood with Democrats Ron Wyden of Oregon, Mark Udall of Colorado and Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut to introduce a bill to prevent the NSA from collecting bulk phone records.
It would also close a loophole that lets the government search Americans’ electronic communications without warrants, and create an independent advocate to argue before the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court that oversees the programs.
The bill would permit Apple Inc. (AAPL:US), Google Inc. (GOOG:US), Facebook Inc. (FB:US) and other Internet companies to disclose information about government requests they receive for customer data, including the number and whether the companies complied.
“We need to significantly reform the NSA’s domestic surveillance programs and the court that oversees them,” Udall said in a statement. He said he also wants to “end the government’s dragnet collection of millions of innocent Americans’ phone records.”
Paul said yesterday that Clapper should resign for giving an untruthful answer during testimony in March. Clapper gave what he later said was an “untruthful” answer when Wyden asked if the government collects data on millions of Americans. “No,” he said. “Not wittingly.”
Senator Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, the top Republican on the panel, said NSA surveillance programs aren’t “broken” and are “working exactly as Congress understood.” Chambliss is writing the bill with Feinstein.
While Feinstein said in an interview her bill is “making some substantive changes,” she added that “they may not be enough for some people and I understand that.”
Other lawmakers such as Senator Tom Coburn, an Oklahoma Republican, said NSA powers shouldn’t be curbed.
“I’m an absolute defender of the bulk data collection,” he said in an interview. “It’s saved hundreds and hundreds of people’s lives, not only in this country but in other countries.”
“Wrong decisions” by Congress could damage NSA programs that have thwarted terrorist attacks, Alexander said at a Washington conference Sept. 25.
Collection of the phone records is essential to preventing terrorist attacks, Alexander, the NSA director, said yesterday.
Bulk phone records were used to determine if there was a threat to New York City after the April 15 bombing at the Boston Marathon, and to determine if there were terrorist plots against U.S. embassies abroad several months ago, Alexander said in an interview after his speech.
Alexander and Clapper also are scheduled to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Oct. 2.
Snowden, who faces U.S. espionage charges and has been granted temporary asylum in Russia, exposed a secret court order compelling Verizon Communications Inc. (VZ:US) to give the NSA phone records, such as numbers and call durations, on millions of Americans. President Barack Obama’s administration has said the metadata collection involves more phone carriers, without naming them.
The NSA collects the phone records under authority in the USA Patriot Act. Another program exposed by Snowden, known as Prism, monitors e-mail and Internet communications under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.
The NSA is required to obtain a warrant if the target of surveillance is an American. It illegally intercepted as many as 56,000 electronic communications a year of Americans who weren’t suspected of having terrorist ties before the secret FISA court found the operation unconstitutional in 2011, according to documents declassified Aug. 21.
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