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27 Sep, 2013 16:01

Feinstein's NSA 'reform' bill would expand snooping powers

Feinstein's NSA 'reform' bill would expand snooping powers

A bipartisan group of US senators is trying to ban the NSA’s blanket surveillance program in a radical bill proposed to the Senate Intelligence Committee. But a milder bill from chairwoman Diane Feinstein would sanction more snooping on US citizens.

Thursday’s Committee hearing on reforming the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) reviewed the two rival bills in an effort to find a balance between security and privacy. The Committee is expected to have further lively debate on the proposed legislation next week, before the bill is sent for consideration by the full Senate.

‘In the nation's best interest’

Two members of the Intelligence Committee, Democrats Ron Wyden (D-Ore) and Mark Udall (D-Colo), along with fellow senators Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn) and Rand Paul (R-Ky) tabled a bill Wednesday that would drastically cut the NSA’s powers, in particular banning the controversial mass call log collection program, which allows the NSA to log and record all phone conversations in the US. 

At Thursday’s hearing, three generals representing the US secret services had to face a barrage of awkward questions, but refused to give up total surveillance, claiming it served national interests and helped to prevent terrorist attacks.

Both Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and National Security Agency director Keith Alexander testified that US spying agencies were merely logging all phone calls and e-mails inside the US, without actually reading the e-mails and and listening to the calls without a court order. But the critical senators seemed unconvinced.

“Is it the goal of the NSA to collect the phone records of all Americans?” Senator Mark Udall asked at the Committee hearing.

“Yes, I believe it is in the nation's best interest to put all the phone records into a lockbox that we could search when the nation needs to do it. Yes,” Alexander replied.

US Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images/AFP)

The milder bill was advocated Thursday by a group of senators led by Committee chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif).

She said the Senate would like to set new, tighter standards on what data the NSA can record, collect and store, and also for how long. NSA analysts should better have a “reasonable articulable suspicion” of ongoing terrorist activities before they put any phone number on record, Feinstein said.

As US security agencies face greater skepticism from the public in the wake of former NSA contractor Edward Snowden’s leaks about US spy agencies’ eavesdropping programs, the senators said some concessions from US intelligence agencies were inevitable. 

Clapper agreed that intercepted data should only be stored for a legally limited period of time, and promised that he would consider releasing information on how the sensitive data had been used.

Alexander and Deputy Attorney General James Cole, also attending the Committee hearing, backed the idea to allow outside lawyers into the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) Court, the entity overseeing the eavesdropping programs, for the most important cases.

In the hearing, Feinstein said the surveillance programs were necessary because they protected Americans from terror attacks akin to this week’s massacre in the shopping mall in Kenya’s capital, Nairobi.

“The death and destruction we saw at the Westgate mall in Nairobi could have been at a mall in the United States,” Feinstein said.

Senate promotes surveillance on American soil

However, Feinstein’s bill would also seek to expand the US government's spying capabilities by authorizing the monitoring of terror suspects the NSA is tracking overseas when they arrive in the US. 

Currently, when a suspected terrorist arrives in America, the NSA has to halt its surveillance, creating a legal loophole.

"I call it the terrorist lottery loophole," said Republican Senator Mike Rogers, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. "If you can find your way from a foreign country where we have reasonable suspicion that you are ... a terrorist ... and get to the United States, under a current rule, they need to turn it off and do a complicated handoff to   the FBI,” Rogers said.

The new bill would allow the NSA to legally continue eavesdropping on a person for seven days after arriving to the US without asking for authorization from a court.

Lawmakers would also like the US Senate to take an active part in nominating the NSA director, who is currently recommended by the defense secretary and nominated by the president.

US Sen. Mark Udall (D-CO) (Reuters/Laura Segall)

When Wyden bluntly asked NSA chief Keith Alexander whether the NSA had ever collected data about the whereabouts of American citizens, or just planned to pinpoint their locations using cellphone signals, the general declined to answer, referring to the classified nature of such information.

“I believe this is something the American people have a right to know, whether the NSA has ever collected or made plans to collect cell site information,” Wyden said, accusing the NSA of “repeatedly deceiving the American people.”

Democratic Senator Wyden, who has been for years working with classified data as a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, also derided the NSA’s complaints about the damage to US national security caused by the recent leaks.

“You talk about the damage that has been done by disclosures, but any government official who thought this would never be disclosed was ignoring history. The truth always manages to come out,” he said.