Congress is eager to take action on reforming the National Security Agency data collection program, seizing plans for hearings after President Barack Obama called for reforms that would – many of which would be put in place at the executive level.
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., talks to media outside the White House in Washington, Thursday, Jan. 9, 2014, after an event hosted by President Barack Obama about the Promise Zones Initiative. The Promise Zone Initiative is part of a plan to create a better bargain for the middle-class by partnering with local communities and businesses to create jobs, increase economic security, expand educational opportunities, increase access to quality, affordable housing and improve public safety. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster
That's not enough for Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and skeptic of the NSA data collection on millions of Americans phone and electronic communications. He praised Obama for proposed reforms, but said more must happen.
“In the wake of these announcements, Congress has important tasks ahead,” Leahy said in a statement. “The president has ordered some significant changes, but more are needed. Section 215 must still be amended, legislatively, to ensure it is not used for dragnet surveillance in the future, and we must fight to create an effective, institutional advocate at the FISA court. I will continue to push for meaningful legislative reforms to our surveillance laws.”
Section 215 of the Patriot Act allows the federal government to compel companies to provide information on customers for counterterrorism reasons. The metadata collection was exposed by government contractor turned fugitive leaker Edward Snowden.
“I am encouraged that the President has embraced the growing consensus that the Section 215 phone records program should not continue in its current form,” Leahy said. “The bulk collection of Americans’ phone records has not made us safer.”
In a Friday address at the Justice Department, Obama called for his Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and Attorney General Eric Holder in charge of determining how the government can maintain the program but not hold on to the data itself. The intelligence community would have access to the bulk data collection under judicial review, based on Obama's assertion.
The president also asked Congress to review the matter, specifically to pass a law for greater congressional oversight of the Federal Intelligence Surveillance (FISA) court, a secret judicial panel charges with reviewing government surveillance or data collection.
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Robert Goodlatte (R-Va.) said the president's focus on whether the data is held by the government or a third party is important, but there are larger concerns.
“While I agree that the government storage of this information is one real concern that needs to be addressed, there are many others,” Goodlatte said in a statement. “In addition, third party storage itself is a very difficult proposal that raises additional concerns.”
The program needs reform, Goodlatte said, and the House will weigh in further.
“While we await the additional recommendations the president has promised from the national security agencies by March 28th, the committee plans to move forward and hold a hearing in the coming weeks on the recommendations made by President Obama today as well as those made by the President’s Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies and the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board,” Goodlatte said. “We must ensure our nation’s intelligence collection programs include real protections for Americans’ civil liberties.”
Sen. Ron Wyden (R-Ore.), one of the leading critics of the NSA spying program, tweeted: "After years of work, it's good to see 1st steps to reform taken today. But make no mistake, many more need to come."
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) has sued to stop the NSA program. He said he is encouraged Obama is addressing the matter, but he is “disappointed in the details.”
“The Fourth Amendment requires an individualized warrant based on probable cause before the government can search phone records and e-mails,” Paul said in a statement. “President Obama's announced solution to the NSA spying controversy is the same unconstitutional program with a new configuration. I intend to continue the fight to restore Americans rights through my Fourth Amendment Restoration Act and my legal challenge against the NSA. The American people should not expect the fox to guard the hen house."
Even Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who has been a staunch supporter of the NSA throughout the controversy, believed Congress should be active in addressing the issue.
“President Obama’s speech today left many crucial questions unanswered. Now is the time for Congress to improve how it executes its constitutional oversight duties, to examine certain signals intelligence collection activities and practices, and to ensure that we are fulfilling our obligation to protect both the security of our nation and the freedom of our citizens.
Among the biggest defenders of the NSA spying program was Rep. Pete King (R-N.Y.), who tweeted “Pres Obama NSA speech better than expected. Most programs left intact. But concerned about extending US citizen privacy rights to foreigners.”