Stop Watching Us video courtesty of the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
On Saturday, thousands of people are expected to rally in Washington, DC, to protest the National Security Agency’s surveillance programs that, according to documents released by Edward Snowden, collect data from American citizens. Saturday’s rally comes at a key moment, as the Senate Intelligence Committee is expected to take up legislation to revise the NSA’s spying authority next week.
It’s clear that reform is needed—but less so that it will come out of the Intelligence Committee. Instead, committee chairwoman Dianne Feinstein wants to make the NSA’s bulk collection of phone records permanent. In an op-ed published in USA Today on Monday, the California senator called the program “legal,” “effective in helping to prevent terrorist plots,” and claimed it was “not surveillance.” She argued that the metadata program should continue, and said her bill would “codify existing procedures into law.”
Feinstein has made it clear in public comments that her main concern is the public’s “misperception” of the program, not the NSA’s activities or the authority of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which authorizes the agency’s surveillance requests. To that end her legislation is targeted primarily at increasing transparency in the agency. It would require the NSA to release an annual report, clarify the benchmark of “reasonable, articulable suspicion” the agency has to meet in order to monitor an individual’s communications and Senate confirmation of the NSA’s director—needed revisions, but the most profound impact of her legislation would be to formally sanction and normalize the collection of vast troves of data about American citizens.
Senator Ron Wyden, Feinstein’s colleague on the Intelligence Committee, made a less-than-subtle jab at the superficiality of her proposal in remarks at the Cato Institute earlier this month. Wyden warned of a “business-as-usual brigade” that will “try mightily to fog up the surveillance debate and convince Congress and the public that the real problem here is not overly intrusive, constitutionally flawed domestic surveillance, but sensationalistic media reporting.” He continued: “their endgame is ensuring that any surveillance reforms are only skin deep.”
The Oregon senator, along with Republican Ron Paul and Democrats Mark Udall and Richard Blumenthal, introduced a comprehensive reform proposal last month that would have a more profound effect on the NSA’s domestic surveillance activities. Their bill would prohibit the collection of phone records under section 215 of the Patriot Act, close loopholes in section 702 of the FISA Amendment Act to ensure that domestic communications are not swept up along with foreigners’ data, and reform the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to require declassification of major opinions and to install an independent civil liberties advocate to argue against the government in critical cases.