WASHINGTON — There was a common theme in the congressional response to the proposed surveillance program changes President Obama announced Friday — lawmakers are anxious to take another stab at NSA reform themselves.
Many in Congress have wanted this on their plate since Edward Snowden’s leaks went public last summer. Since then, there have been hearings and reports and angst-filled news conferences and press releases. But only one committee — Senate Intelligence — has advanced any legislation related to the revelations.
Dozens of lawmakers introduced or sponsored bills, though, including Sen. Al Franken, whose Surveillance Transparency Act would require an annual report from the government on its spying practices. Franken chairs a technology and privacy subcommittee, which considered the bill at a November hearing.
Obama offered his reform plan in a Friday speech. His most notable proposals deal with the controversial collection of cell phone records — the data would still be collected, he said, but he proposed storing it with a third party and making it only accessible to the government after a court order.
He wants to create a group of advocates to argue on the public’s behalf before the secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which governs spying programs. And Obama said his administration would study both further reforms and other efforts on how to best protect Americans’ privacy.
Obama’s directives include one other main component of Franken’s bill: allowing telecommunications companies to disclose when the government asks them for data. Obama didn’t describe what that would entail, but in a statement, Franken praised him for including it in his reform efforts.
But Franken said Obama could have done even more to increase NSA transparency.
“Without further reforms, the American people still won’t get the information they need to make up their own minds about these programs,” he said in a statement. “Seven months after the Snowden leaks, the American government has yet to tell the American people how many of them were caught up in this surveillance — and how many actually had their information looked at. … He’s taking some steps forward, but it’s still not enough.”
Both Franken and Sen. Amy Klobuchar sit on the Senate Judiciary Committee, which held a handful of hearings investigating the surveillance programs. In a statement, Klobuchar called Obama’s reforms “important recommendations to boost transparency and accountability.”
His plans won some plaudits from the senators leading the charge for NSA reform. Three Intelligence Committee Democrats — Sens. Ron Wyden (Ore.), Mark Udhal (Colo.) and Martin Heinrich (N.M.) released a statement after Obama’s speech saying they were “pleased” with some of his proposals.
But even they concluded, “we also believe that additional surveillance reforms are necessary, and we will continue to push for these reforms in the coming weeks and months.”
Bachmann: Obama plan could ‘undercut’ national security
As much as the Snowden leaks have increased the scrutiny of the government’s surveillance programs, some have argued they’re so detailed they have hurt national security efforts along the way.
That was the conclusion of a Pentagon report given to the House Intelligence Committee last week. Republican Rep. Michele Bachmann, who sits on that panel and called Snowden a “traitor” after his leaks went public, said in a statement that she worries Obama’s proposals could “undercut our national security,” notably his plan to have public advocates argue in front of the FISA court.
Such a plan “could mean giving an extra level of protection to suspected terrorists that goes above and beyond the rights of the American people,” she said. “In addition, the President proposed moving metadata storage outside of the NSA, but did not disclose where and how the records would be impenetrable like they are now.”
Bachmann concluded: “Moving forward, Congress must have a robust debate about the recommendations that President Obama outlined today.”
That’s the line of the day, from members of both parties. Democratic Rep. Betty McCollum, who co-sponsored some House NSA reform bills, called Obama’s plan “a start but not enough,” and said lawmakers would have to take a shot at reforming the NSA themselves.
“Congress must demand greater oversight of the NSA’s actions and accountability for the billions of taxpayer dollars being spent,” she said. “The privacy and civil liberties of the American people must never be victimized by the secret powers of the NSA.”
Devin Henry can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter: @dhenry