Whether reforms to US National Security Agency intel programs will proceed in the Senate is unclear. (National Security Agency)
WASHINGTON — Top US lawmakers are pushing changes to controversial surveillance programs run by the Pentagon’s NSA, but two senior Republicans doubt Majority Leader Sen. Harry Reid will ever allow a vote.
The Democratic and Republican leaders of the House and Senate Intelligence committees say changes are needed after former Booz Allen Hamilton employee Edward Snowden leaked details of several highly classified anti-terrorism programs.
Senate Republicans were still stinging as they prepared to leave Washington before the holidays, angry with the majority leader for, as they see it, his refusal to allow debates and votes on some of their most-coveted amendments to all kinds of bills.
Two senior Senate Republicans who can help deliver GOP votes that might be needed to end debate on an NSA/intel reform bill and then pass it are skeptical Reid would defy the White House and let senators vote on such a measure.
“He doesn’t let much of any legislation come to the floor,” Senate Intelligence Committee Ranking Member Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., told Defense News late last month. “But I think there’s bipartisan agreement that we need to have a debate over the NSA.”
Add to the skeptical list Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., an influential voice in the GOP caucus on national security issues.
“I think it deserves hearings and it deserves a legislative vehicle that would then have debate and amendments,” McCain said.“But, unfortunately, the majority leader doesn’t seem to like that legislative process.”
A Reid spokesman had not responded to a request for comment.
The Senate Intelligence Committee late last year approved one measure that would usher in changes to controversial programs run by the NSA that collect massive amounts of email and telephone data.
It was crafted by the panel’s leaders, Chairwoman Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Chambliss. Specifically, it would ramp up criminal penalties for individuals who violate the law that created the secret Foreign Surveillance Intelligence Court, and ban the bulk collection of email and telephone data.
The Feinstein-Chambliss bill also would change the standards used to determine when NSA analysts could review data obtained via the programs. The measure would usher in “a five-year limit on the retention of bulk communication records acquired under Section 215 of the USA Patriot Act and requires Attorney General approval to query records that are older than three years.” It also would require the NSA director to become a Senate-confirmed post.
But it faces powerful resistance. One source of opposition already is coming from the influential American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).
“The legislation would make clear in no uncertain terms that communication records like phone, email, and internet data can be collected without even an ounce of suspicion, pursuant to the so-called privacy rules already in place,” the ACLU said in a statement.
What’s more, other senators are pushing their own bills and floating controversial amendments that would usher in more substantial changes than would the Feinstein-Chambliss bill.
Jim Lewis, a former State Department intelligence official now with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says it’s unclear what kind of bill would move through both chambers.
House Intelligence Committee leaders have yet to unveil an NSA reform measure.
And in the Senate, Lewis says “I think you’ll see some fighting” between pro-intelligence members like Feinstein and skeptical Democrats like Judiciary Committee Chairman Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., who wants a more stringent bill.
“When you’ve got new legislation that people have problems with, in this case the Patriot Act, it’s good to have a new debate,” Lewis said. “But I don’t think the Senate bills really change those [Patriot Act] provisions. I think you’ll see some fighting there.”