Congress Weighs In On NSA Overhaul Proposals

Jan 15, 2014
Originally published on January 15, 2014 7:30 am
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It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.


And I'm Renee Montagne. The National Security Agency faces pressure to reform. Congress is starting to consider what to do about an agency that still operates in great secrecy but has seen many of its operations exposed. In a moment we'll ask how much more we don't know. We start with lawmakers listening to a presidential commission pushing for change after the disclosures by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.

NPR's Carrie Johnson reports.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, kicked off the hearing with this question: Were the programs exposed by NSA leaker Edward Snowden really worth the backlash?

SEN. PATRICK LEAHY: The most critical factor to decide whether to conduct any particular intelligence activity is an assessment of its value.

JOHNSON: For one such program, known in shorthand as 215 for its place in federal law, the president's review panel unanimously concluded that bulk collection of U.S. phone records did not break up any terrorism plots.

Here's former Deputy CIA Director Michael Morell, a member of the panel.

MICHAEL MORELL: It is absolutely true that the 215 program has not played a significant role in disrupting any terrorist attacks to this point. That is a different statement than saying the program is not important.

JOHNSON: Morell said the program had helped analysts figure out terrorists were not operating inside the U.S., likening the collection of billions of phone records to writing a check each year for homeowner's insurance even if your house never burns down.

The review panel has urged the NSA to get out of the business of storing those records- instead, keeping them with telephone companies and service providers and getting a judge's OK before doing a search.

University of Chicago law professor and panel member Geoffrey Stone.

GEOFFREY STONE: The concern of the Fourth Amendment, the concern of our constitutional history, is that government can do far more harm if it abuses information in its possession than private entities can.

JOHNSON: And the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court has identified episodes when the NSA gathered too much information and went beyond the bounds of the court's directives.

To Utah Republican Senator Mike Lee that's no surprise.

SEN. MIKE LEE: We've seen this movie before. We know how it ends. We know that eventually if that much information remains in the hands of government for that long, it may eventually be abused.

JOHNSON: Whether to allow the NSA to continue to collect U.S. phone records in bulk, and if not, who should store that data - those are some of the biggest decisions in front of President Obama.

Another recommendation of the review panel: to put an independent advocate before the secret surveillance court drew flak yesterday from an unexpected quarter: judges themselves.

Judge John Bates, former leader of the surveillance court, wrote lawmakers that a special advocate would be unnecessary and counterproductive in most cases. And if experts were needed, Bates said, that should be the call of the judges.

Panel member Cass Sunstein, a former White House adviser, respectfully disagreed.

CASS SUNSTEIN: The judge sometimes is not in the ideal position to know whether a particular view needs representation and that in our tradition standardly the judge doesn't decide whether one or another of you gets a lawyer.

JOHNSON: Now it's President Obama left to decide which of many opposing views will prevail and which of the review group's 46 recommendations he'll pursue by executive action or with the help of Congress.

Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.