July 30 (Bloomberg) -- Fierce defenders of U.S. government surveillance programs are the latest members of Congress to suggest curtailing them, as a push started by Tea Party Republicans and civil libertarian Democrats gains momentum.
Just two months after U.S. contractor Edward Snowden disclosed the nature of the National Security Agency’s collection of phone and Internet records from millions of Americans, a House proposal to defund it came seven votes short of passing July 24. Lawmakers in both parties now say they’re drawing plans to restrict data collection, declassify court orders allowing the spying and change the way the court’s judges are appointed.
“That vote in the House reflected a very big amount of skepticism amongst the people they represent” about “whether people’s individual rights are being encroached upon,” Senator John McCain, an Arizona Republican, said at a Bloomberg Government luncheon yesterday.
McCain, one of the most vocal supporters on Capitol Hill of anti-terrorism programs, said he wants to boost congressional oversight of the activities and provide transparency to the operations of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which authorizes the data gathering.
Any move to diminish the NSA’s surveillance powers would run into objections from staunch supporters of the programs, including the Obama administration, the intelligence community and congressional leaders, though they may be amenable to more disclosure and oversight. The public also remains divided over whether electronic spying efforts should be curtailed.
Underpinning efforts to curb the NSA programs is a shift in public opinion about government surveillance activities fashioned after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. A July 17-21 Pew Research Center poll found that 50 percent of adults surveyed approved of the government’s collection of phone and Internet data, while 44 percent disapproved.
The Pew poll found that civil liberties concerns are becoming the predominant issue for many American adults, with 47 percent saying their biggest concern is that the policies have gone too far in restricting privacy rights. Only 35 percent said they’re more concerned that the surveillance isn’t going far enough.
The July poll marked the first time that civil liberties trumped protection from terrorists as the top issue since the center began asking about that in 2004.
The telephone poll of 1,480 adults had a margin of error of plus or minus three percentage points.
Lawmakers are “being bowled over by a public reaction to the level of surveillance and the absence of knowledge and the absence of checks and balances,” said Gordon Adams, a professor at American University in Washington who teaches national security policy. “We’re going to start seeing some legislating.”
In last week’s House 205-217 vote, both parties and their leaders splintered over an amendment to an annual defense-spending bill that would have ended the NSA’s blanket collection of phone records. While 94 Republicans and 111 Democrats supported curtailing funding for the telephone record-collection effort, 134 Republicans and 83 Democrats voted against it.
Supporters of the amendment included Representative James Clyburn of South Carolina, the third-ranking Democrat in the House, and House Republican Conference Chairwoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington. The chamber’s top party leaders -- Republican Speaker John Boehner and Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi -- both voted against it.
While Boehner later defended the surveillance, Pelosi reached out to the White House to seek changes. Pelosi and 153 other House Democrats sent President Barack Obama a letter July 26, urging curbs that would “preserve American’s privacy and civil liberties while protecting our national security.”
Debate moves to the Senate, where the Judiciary Committee will hold a hearing tomorrow on government surveillance powers. Senator Richard Durbin of Illinois, a senior Democrat on the panel, said on ABC’s “This Week” on Sunday that he supports limits on the collection of metadata from telephone calls.
In both chambers, the leaders of the intelligence panels have begun discussions with other lawmakers about changes to the data-collection program even as they defend the need for it.
House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers, a Michigan Republican, has said he will include new privacy protections in an annual intelligence measure that will include more disclosure about how the FISA court makes decisions.
That broader measure may also include a shift in how “metadata” are stored and retained, with private companies and not the government holding the information, according to a congressional aide who asked not to be identified because they weren’t authorized to speak about the legislation.
Rogers and the panel’s top Democrat, Dutch Ruppersberger of Maryland, both defended the phone-records collection last week while pledging to “foster stronger public confidence.”
Representative Jim Sensenbrenner, a Wisconsin Republican who sponsored the Patriot Act in 2001, and Democratic Representative Zoe Lofgren of California are working together on legislation to allow businesses to disclose their involvement with surveillance orders.
A separate Sensenbrenner bill would limit collection of phone data to targets of a federal terrorism investigation and put new restrictions on the FISA court, said Ben Miller, a Sensenbrenner spokesman.
“It is obvious that steps need to be taken so our intelligence and law enforcement agencies gather information on those suspected of terrorism instead of every American,” Lofgren said in a statement.
Some lawmakers seeking changes to the government’s data collection say they want the revisions to be narrowly tailored.
“I support these programs,” McCain said yesterday. “I think many of them are important; it’s not that I want to dismantle them. I do think we got to be much more transparent.”
Former intelligence officials last week released an open letter defending the need for the government to keep administering the programs as they’re configured today.
“We urge leaders of both parties in Washington to come together to defend these programs and to ensure their effective continuation,” wrote the officials, who included Porter Goss, the former director of the Central Intelligence Agency, and Stephen Hadley, a former White House national security adviser.
A real question is whether or not Obama will leap into the debate with his own proposal to thwart the ideas he finds most objectionable, said Sean Kay, a professor of politics and government at Ohio Wesleyan University in Delaware, Ohio. The president has some political incentive to act because there are risks to Democratic turnout in the 2014 midterm elections if he doesn’t take a stand for civil liberties, Kay said.
“This is the kind of thing that political advisers around the president might look at and say, ‘If we’re not real careful here, this issue could depress the vote in our base,’” he said.
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