The revelations of National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden earlier this year produced a lot of outrage, both on Capitol Hill and among the general public, about the agency’s extensive domestic surveillance activities.
The important question now is what, if anything, Congress is going to do about it. On Wednesday, a bipartisan group of senators led by Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., announced a new proposal to overhaul the nation’s surveillance laws. The other co-sponsors form an eclectic mix of senators — they are Mark Udall, D-Colo., Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., and Rand Paul, R-Ky.
The legislation’s text has not been released yet, but here’s what the senators say they hope to accomplish.
• End bulk collection of Americans’ communications records.
The government has interpreted an obscure provision of the Patriot Act, known as Section 215, to compel phone companies to hand over records of every American’s phone calls.
“Bulk collection through the 215 program ought to end,” Udall said at a news conference Wednesday. “It didn’t work for email collection; it’s not working for phone collection. It has never been proven to Senator Wyden or me that any of the bulk collection has provided uniquely valuable intelligence that had led to the disruption of any plots.”
The senators’ proposal would change three provisions of the law that could be interpreted to allow bulk record collection.
• Limit the legal authority for the PRISM program.
PRISM, the surveillance program that allows the government to obtain information from Google, Microsoft and other online service providers, is based on Section 702 of the 2008 FISA Amendments Act. The senators want stricter regulation of PRISM and other surveillance programs covered by Section 702. Their bill would strengthen the prohibition on “reverse targeting” of Americans; that is, targeting a foreigner with the goal of obtaining communications involving an American.
The bill would also require the NSA to more aggressively filter out and discard information about Americans accidentally collected through PRISM and related programs.
• Reform the secret surveillance court.
Right now, challenges to government surveillance are heard by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. Its proceedings, and most of its opinions, are secret, and only the government is allowed to present arguments to it.
The Wyden bill would require declassification of significant opinions by the FISC. It would also name an independent constitutional advocate who would “argue against the government when the FISC is considering significant legal and constitutional questions,” according to a bill summary provided by the senators.
• Increase transparency.
Under current law, private companies are barred from disclosing even basic information about their participation in the NSA surveillance program. The legislation would change that. It would allow private companies to disclose more information about their participation in government spying programs. And it would require the government to disclose more information about its surveillance activities.
The Wyden proposal is not as ambitious as a proposal by Rep. Rush Holt, D-N.J., to repeal the Patriot Act and FISA Amendments Act altogether. But it would impose significant new limits on the government’s domestic spying powers.
With this group of senators readying to consider new limits on the NSA’s spying programs, national security officials have sought to boost confidence in their procedures. Senior officials have said they moved quickly to report and correct internal problems that led to the NSA’s accidental collection of 56,000 emails and other communications by Americans, and they insisted that willful abuse of surveillance data by officials is almost nonexistent.
But the head of the NSA sidestepped Wyden’s questions at a Thursday hearing about whether the NSA has ever used Americans’ cellphone signals to collect information on their whereabouts that would allow tracking of the movements of individual callers. “I believe this is something the American people have a right to know, whether NSA has ever collected or made plans to collect cell site information,” Wyden said.