Debate is underway to determine the extent of reform needed at the US National Security Agency. (US National Security Agency)
WASHINGTON — Senior lawmakers who oversee the US intelligence community are ready to force changes on America’s spy agencies, especially the embattled National Security Agency (NSA), but major reforms appear unlikely.
The so-called “Big Four” — the chairs and ranking members of the House and Senate Intelligence committees — say they favor changes in the wake of former Booz Allen Hamilton employee Edward Snowden leaking details of sensitive US surveillance programs. But when pressed for details on their way to a two-week holiday recess, those members described plans that sounded more like tinkering around the edges than sweeping changes.
“The issues are: reform it, or end it. And I’m on the reform it side,” Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., told Defense News. “I believe our bill does that. It increases transparency and privacy. It codifies that no content can be [bulk] collected.”
The “it” to which Feinstein referred — sometimes in jest as the “senator from the intel community” — was NSA anti-terrorism programs that collect massive amounts of information about email and telephone traffic.
Those controversial programs, which senior officials say are vital to countering al-Qaida and similar groups, are the ones on which most lawmakers are focused.
Sen. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, the top Republican on the Feinstein-led panel, replied this way when asked if he expects Congress to pass an intelligence-reform measure this year.
“I think there’s bipartisan agreement that we need to have a debate over the NSA,” he said. “The whole issue of the NSA programs, I think, is going to be the focus.”
Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, who chairs the House Armed Services Committee’s subpanel that oversees military intelligence and is the second-ranking Republican on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, said Congress likely will usher in some changes this year.
But in a statement prepared for Defense News, Thornberry, like Feinstein, endorsed the controversial NSA programs while also dropping similar buzzwords.
“The [House] Intelligence Committee has been considering a number of ways to improve our national security laws with the ultimate goal of increasing transparency to demonstrate the critical value of intelligence programs,” Thornberry said.
James Lewis, a former State Department intelligence official, said the intel panel leaders “are basically talking about modifying the existing system, not replacing it.”
“The main split is between the intel committees and ... the Judiciary committees,” Lewis said. “They have talked about greater oversight, more restrictions and a privacy advocate on the [Foreign Surveillance Intelligence Court]. That could substantially change the NSA programs.”
Since members who control the committees that would be tasked with crafting any intelligence-reform bills favor the NSA’s surveillance programs, big changes from Capitol Hill appear unlikely.
Still, substantial changes could be coming, Feinstein said.
“The president can implement any reforms on his own. These are all executive branch programs,” she said. “So he can just do it virtually on his own by executive order. He doesn’t need legislation.”
In late December, Obama made a cryptic remark about US spy programs, saying just because certain tasks have been done one way for several years is no reason to continue those tactics.
Feinstein and Chambliss are co-sponsors of a bill their panel approved late last year that would usher in changes at the NSA and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court that oversees email and telephone monitoring initiatives.
It would ramp up criminal penalties for individuals who violate the law that created the secret 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.
Their bill would initiate “a five-year limit on the retention of bulk communication records acquired under Section 215 of the USA Patriot Act and require 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 passage of the Feinstein-Chambliss bill is no sure thing. Powerful lobbying groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and influential lawmakers are skeptical.
“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.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who holds sufficient sway inside the GOP caucus on national security issues to help deliver enough Republican votes to end debate on any intel reform bill, told Defense News that “congressional oversight was MIA on Snowden.”
“I think the whole system has to be re-evaluated in light of [Bradley] Manning and Snowden,” McCain said. “The scope of the surveillance that we are engaged in, and the reporting procedures, and the court operation, all of it needs to be re-examined.” ■