Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-VT, at a panel on Wednesday, July 31, 2013, where top Obama administration officials were questioned about the National Security Agency’s surveillance programs. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
These days it’s difficult to imagine Congress’s return to the business of governance. Still, several lawmakers have refocused their attention on the National Security Agency’s surveillance practices, suggesting that the resolve to reform did not die down during the August recess or the crises that followed. At least a dozen bills aimed at the NSA’s spying powers are pending in Congress, and key committees will hold hearings in the next two weeks.
Senator Patrick Leahy spoke forcefully today at Georgetown University Law Center about the need to curb the reach of the NSA and to reconsider the structure of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) that authorizes the agency’s spying requests. “The Section 215 bulk collection of Americans’ phone records must end,” said Leahy, the top Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, which is responsible for marking up several of the bills. “The government has not made its case that this is an effective counterterrorism tool, especially in light of the intrusion on Americans’ privacy rights.”
On Monday, Leahy and a bipartisan group of eight other senators sent a letter to the intelligence community’s inspector general requesting a “full accounting” of the government’s surveillance practices between 2010 and 2013, particularly in regards to US citizens. Leahy has already introduced legislation that would revise Section 215 of the Patriot Act to raise the standard required of the government to justify the collection of data in a terrorism investigation. Leahy’s bill would also increase transparency, public reporting, and inspector general oversight.
Democratic Senators Mark Udall and Ron Wyden have also introduced legislation targeting Section 215, as have House Democrat John Conyers and Republican Justin Amash. A proposal from New Jersey Democrat Rush Holt goes even further, repealing the entire Patriot Act and the 2008 amendments to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) that give the NSA its sweeping reach.
Limiting the NSA’s surveillance authority will only be meaningful if the court charged with interpreting those laws is strengthened, something that Leahy pointed to in his remarks. “I am convinced the system set up in the 1970s to regulate the surveillance capabilities of our intelligence community is no longer working,” Leahy said in reference to FISC, the secret court created after the passage of FISA in 1978 to address widespread domestic spying by the NSA, CIA and FBI, which was exposed in a series of congressional investigations by a group of senators known as the Church Committee.