WASHINGTON – A White House review of U.S. surveillance programs has given Congress some temporary political cover after lawmakers failed this year to overhaul spy operations, and could break the legislative snarl that followed months of global outrage over privacy intrusions.
Since last summer, a deeply divided Congress has tussled over competing plans to protect Americans’ privacy rights by limiting National Security Agency powers to track terrorists.
But a presidential advisory panel’s 46 tough recommendations, released this past week by the White House, offer a way ahead for lawmakers who face the voters next fall. They can point to the suggestions to save face politically with security-minded constituents if surveillance is scaled back aggressively.
“The American public is expressing an opinion that it feels safer, and we don’t need as many of these intrusive-sounding programs as we needed a decade ago,” said Tom Newcomb, a former CIA officer and lawyer who served as a counterterrorism adviser to former President George W. Bush.
“The political risk, as I see it, is all of this changes if we get a terrorist attack or a significant attempt that scares us again,” said Newcomb, who is now a criminal justice and political science professor at Heidelberg University in Tiffin, Ohio. “And then Congress, which has generally taken it upon itself to assign blame, will blame those who reformed.”
At the least, the review finally could prod Congress into defining the extent to which the U.S. should spy on its citizens and foreign allies.
The recommendations “reaffirm what many of my colleagues and I have been saying since June — the NSA has gone too far,” said Republican Rep. James F. Sensenbrenner.
The review group adopted the central part of legislation that he is pushing — barring the NSA from its massive daily sweep of U.S. telephone records.
Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden said he found a lot in the report “for a reformer to like.”
There is no guarantee that President Barack Obama will embrace all the recommendations from the group, which includes former intelligence officials. Also, the review drew sharp criticism from lawmakers who fear that limiting surveillance could lead to future attacks.
In a statement Friday, the Democratic and Republican leaders of the House and Senate intelligence committees said some of the group’s conclusions were “misleading.” They urged the White House to reject a recommendation to scrap the bulk collection of telephone records known as “metadata.”
“The NSA’s metadata program is a valuable analytical tool that assists intelligence personnel in their efforts to efficiently ‘connect the dots’ on emerging or current terrorist threats directed against Americans in the United States,” wrote Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss, and Republican Rep. Mike Rogers and Democratic Rep. Dutch Ruppersburger. “We continue to believe that it is vital this lawful collection program continue.”
The surveillance programs were revealed in June by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, whose release of smuggled agency documents have demonstrated the government’s secret reach into the private lives of people worldwide.
U.S. intelligence officials declassified more documents on Saturday, providing a look at the history of NSA surveillance since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper explained how the NSA was first authorized by Bush’s White House to start collecting bulk phone and Internet records in the hunt for al-Qaida terrorists, as part of the previously disclosed Terrorist Surveillance Program. That was eventually replaced by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act — a law that requires a secret court to OK the spying. The disclosures are part of the White House’s campaign to justify the NSA surveillance, declassifying as many documents as possible explaining the spying.
Until now, the administration has favored a proposal by Feinstein and Rogers that will keep the phone records surveillance in place but impose stronger court and congressional oversight of the NSA. The committee leaders also will create penalties for people who access classified information without authorization, and enhance whistle-blower protections for intelligence agency employees.
Legislation by Sensenbrenner, the Republican who helped strengthen spy powers in 2001, and Democratic leaders of the House and Senate Judiciary committees, is far more aggressive in scaling back surveillance.
It would prohibit the NSA from collecting metadata and create a privacy advocate to attend hearings and, in some cases, appeal rulings of a secret intelligence court that oversees surveillance requests.