WASHINGTON – U.S. lawmakers took a step toward reforming the way Washington gathers intelligence on Thursday, a cautious first gesture in the wake of leaker Edward Snowden’s bombshell revelations.
The Senate Intelligence Committee’s proposed measures fall short of other efforts under way in Congress to end bulk data collection altogether, and are less than what privacy advocates have been demanding.
But the proposals nevertheless mark a first step toward legislation to address a scandal that has angered America’s allies and its own Internet firms while laying bare the vast scope of U.S. online snooping.
Snowden’s leaks revealed that the National Security Agency scoops up private phone and Internet data on millions of people around the world, the vast majority of whom have no connection to terrorism.
Lawmakers from both the Democratic and Republican camps have expressed skepticism about the secrecy cloaking the programs and the court that reviews electronic surveillance requests.
Critics say both the court and congressional oversight committees have failed to provide a check on the NSA’s eavesdropping powers and doubt that Thursday’s draft plan will make much difference.
But Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein insisted the FISA Improvements Act would increase citizens’ privacy as well as tighten oversight of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.
The bill would write into statute the authority for NSA to collect records in bulk under Section 215 of the USA Patriot Act — with protection for Americans whose records are harvested. The phone data program, which once was classified, gathers in a database billions of call records from U.S. phone companies. The data include numbers dialed and the calls’ time and duration, but not their content.
The legislation would retain the current policy of keeping the call records for up to five years but would require the attorney general’s approval to query records older than three years. It also would require that each number run against the database be reviewed by the surveillance court to ensure that there is “reasonable, articulable suspicion” it is linked to a terrorist.
The bill would require outside experts to review key court findings or interpretations of the law.
It provides for prison terms of up to 10 years for unauthorized access to collected data, and requires an annual public report on the number of investigations made using the NSA database.
The NSA director and inspector general would be subject to Senate confirmation. And procedures for intelligence gathering under Executive Order 12333, which defines the basic powers and responsibilities of the intelligence agencies, would undergo a review every five years.
Feinstein said after her committee voted 11-4 in favor of the bill, “Intelligence is necessary to protect our national and economic security, as well as to stop attacks against our friends and allies around the world.”
Critics derided the legislation as a fig leaf draped over a larger problem.
“Unfortunately, the bill passed by the Senate Intelligence Committee does not go far enough to address the NSA’s overreaching domestic surveillance programs,” said Democratic Sen. Mark Udall. “I fought on the committee to replace this bill with real reform, and I will keep working to ensure our national security programs show the respect for the U.S. Constitution.”
Udall backs a rival bill that would put a stop to the bulk data collection and introduce a “special advocate” who works to assure privacy and civil liberties.
Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden, who for years has sought to rein in surveillance, predicted a long battle ahead.
Elizabeth Goitein, co-director of the Brennan Center for Justice’s Liberty and National Security Program, said: “At its core, the bill would legalize a program — bulk collection of Americans’ telephone records — that is on shaky legal footing at best. In that sense, the bill not only preserves the NSA’s powers, it enhances them.”