Lawmakers Tangle Over Renewing Surveillance Law

The Justice Department and the intelligence community say reauthorizing the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Amendments Act, which expires at the end of the year, is their top national security priority. But an interesting mix of senators are sounding alarms about whether the government is secretly gathering too much information on innocent Americans, and keeping it for far too long. They cite a newly declassified letter that exposes an incident where even the Obama administration acknowledges it went too far.

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A surveillance law that lets authorities peek inside the operations of terrorist groups is set to expire at the end of the year. The Obama administration says renewing it is its top intelligence priority for this Congress. But a coalition of lawmakers and civil liberties groups is trying to put on the brakes. As NPR's Carrie Johnson reports, they're worried that authorities could be trampling on the privacy rights of innocent Americans.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: The director of national intelligence and the attorney general say it's vital to reauthorize the 2008 law known as the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Amendments Act. Democrat Dianne Feinstein, the leader of the Senate Intelligence Committee, agrees.

SENATOR DIANNE FEINSTEIN: Are there people that would come after us? You bet they are. And the one thing that keeps this at bay is strong, precise, good intelligence.

JOHNSON: The surveillance law allows U.S. officials to eavesdrop without a warrant on the electronic communications of foreigners they believe are overseas. The problem for civil liberties groups is that sometimes American citizens are on the other end of those calls and emails. Senator Ron Wyden, a Democrat from Oregon, wants to know how often that happens. But Wyden says he's getting no answers from the National Security Agency.

SENATOR RON WYDEN: What is really one of the more remarkable statements I've heard in my time in public service, the leadership of the NSA said that trying to come up with this estimate would in itself violate the privacy of U.S. persons.

JOHNSON: Wyden's one of a dozen senators from both political parties pressing for more disclosure about how authorities are using the surveillance law. Earlier this month, Wyden says he finally got them to acknowledge they violated the privacy rights of Americans in one episode that's still shrouded in secrecy. Michelle Richardson is a lawyer at the American Civil Liberties Union.

MICHELLE RICHARDSON: The problem with trying to rein these programs in is that we are trying to do so with very little information.

JOHNSON: Veterans of the national security establishment say there's plenty of oversight for the surveillance law even if most of it's secret. Carrie Cordero used to work at the Justice Department. She defended the law at a recent event at the Cato Institute in Washington.

CARRIE CORDERO GEORGETOWN UNIVERSITY: Despite the assertion here that there's no accountability, the Senate intelligence report that was issued this summer did do a good job of explaining the multiple levels of oversight that were built into the FISA Amendments Act, including the internal oversight at the agencies, the oversight by the Department of Justice and the DNI, the oversight by the FISA court and the oversight by Congress.

JOHNSON: But that's not enough for Senator Wyden, who told Cordero he still thinks the U.S. is violating the spirit of the law. Wyden said he couldn't get into details because the program's so secret. But in letters to the administration, lawmakers raised the issue of a loophole that could allow authorities to search vast databases of stored emails and phone calls for information about a particular American without a warrant. Senator Richard Durbin, a Democrat from Illinois, is working with Utah Republican Mike Lee to amend the surveillance law.

SENATOR RICHARD DURBIN: What Senator Lee and I are trying to do is establish that there is a bright line here between what we do with those outside the United States who threaten us and what the Constitution requires of us of those within the United States.

SENATOR SHELDON WHITEHOUSE: I think that this risks being a killer amendment for this program.

FEINSTEIN: That's right.

JOHNSON: That's Rhode Island Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse being seconded by Senator Feinstein. They warn that efforts to tinker with the law to build in more protections for U.S. citizens...

WHITEHOUSE: ...would shut down what many of the intelligence committee - is the most valuable source of foreign terror information that they receive.

JOHNSON: A bill favored by the Obama administration with no amendments is waiting for a vote in the House, and the Senate is likely to weigh in this fall as is the U.S. Supreme Court, which will hear a challenge to the surveillance law by reporters and lawyers who say it violates their rights to free speech and privacy. They worry authorities are monitoring their communications, but the program is so secret, they haven't been able to dig up any evidence to prove it. Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington.

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