Congress Divided On NSA Role

President Obama's proposed changes for NSA surveillance rules include some that would need congressional approval. But that could prove a challenge, with members of Congress divided about the spy agency's activities.

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The president's efforts to smooth over frayed relations with allies was somewhat successful. In Germany, reports surfaced last year that the NSA had monitored the cell phone of German Chancellor Angela Merkel. A senior lawmaker in her party called Obama's speech, quote, "an important contribution toward restoring the trust we've lost in our close friend and ally." Her spokesperson said they would look at it carefully. In Brazil, where documents show that the NSA monitored the phone calls of President Dilma Rousseff, one Brazilian politician said the spying on friends and allies should never have happened. Here in the U.S., many of President Obama's proposed changes to the NSA's surveillance programs will require congressional approval, and there is bipartisan agreement that some reform is needed. But as NPR's Ailsa Chang reports, the members are divided over how far those reforms should go.

AILSA CHANG, BYLINE: There are some on Capitol Hill who think no one should be messing with the surveillance programs at all because the bits of information they vacuum up form mosaics of data that could save lives. Republican Peter King of New York, who sits on the House Intelligence Committee, told CNN on Friday he was glad to see President Obama leave the programs pretty much intact.

REPRESENTATIVE PETER KING: I don't think any changes were called for, any so-called reforms. But the fact is the ones the president made today are really minimal.

CHANG: Minimal to King, but substantial to others. One of the president's reforms that was especially significant to Democrat Martin Heinrich, a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, was the call to move bulk telephone data out of the hands of government.

SENATOR MARTIN HEINRICH: When you put it in the hands of the government, you create a whole new level of risk. And certainly a risk of it being misused for political purposes.

CHANG: The White House is asking Congress to ultimately approve the assignment of a new custodian of the records, and Heinrich says he thinks it ought to be the phone companies.

HEINRICH: Well, the reality is those telecom companies already hold that data. They take that very seriously because there's an economic incentive for them to do that.

CHANG: Heinrich also applauded the president for requiring prior court approval before the government can access any data, though he's pushing for the White House to go further and make sure the government gets a warrant before reading any communications. Heinrich is one of several lawmakers who think the government shouldn't be involved in this kind of metadata at all. Here's Republican Rand Paul of Kentucky on CNN.

SENATOR RAND PAUL: I don't want them collecting the information. It's not about who holds it. I don't want them collecting every American's information.

CHANG: Paul says the president is trying to have it both ways. He says Obama may have expressed concerns about privacy in Friday's speech but the White House still left the door wide open for the government to gather volumes of personal information.

PAUL: Well, what I think I heard is that if you like your privacy you can keep it, but in the meantime we're going to keep collecting your phone records, your emails, your text messages and likely your credit card information.

CHANG: Paul has an ally from far across the political spectrum. Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, an Independent who usually votes with the Democrats, told CNN he thinks the collection of telephone data is destructive to American ideals.

SENATOR BERNIE SANDERS: And I think all of this stuff has a very significant chilling impact on the willingness of the American people to be thinking about issues, to be writing about issues, to be talking about issues. That is my feel.

CHANG: Still, some critics of the program were simply grateful the White House is even asking Congress to help figure out the path forward. Republican Senator John Hoeven of North Dakota says it's a nice change of pace around these parts.

SENATOR JOHN HOEVEN: One of the things you're seeing with the administration is they have not engaged Congress enough. And also the solution is going to have to be bipartisan. I think that's the only way we're going to get broad-based public support for what we're doing.

CHANG: In the meantime, there's already pending legislation in both chambers that would simply end any bulk collection of phone data immediately. Ailsa Chang, NPR News, the Capitol.

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