Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, vowed Tuesday to push bipartisan legislation to limit the surveillance power of the National Security Agency.
Leahy said that he is working with Representative James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.), who authored the Patriot Act, and Senator Mike Lee (R-Utah) to re-evaluate what the lawmakers see as outdated surveillance rules that are easily abused in today’s technologically driven world.
“I am convinced that the system set up in the 1970s to regulate the surveillance capabilities of our intelligence community is no longer working,” Leahy said during a speech at Georgetown University Law Center. “We have to recalibrate.”
The surveillance overhaul will coincide with a separate bill Leahy already introduced to limit the NSA’s ability to collect phone data in bulk.
“In my view — and I’ve discussed this with the White House — the Section 215 bulk collection of Americans’ phone records must end,” Leahy said. “The government has not made its case that this is an effective counterterrorism tool, especially in light of the intrusion on Americans’ privacy rights.”
Earlier this month, newly declassified documents revealed that even NSA officials lacked an understanding of the scope of the privacy intrusions carried out by the government. The information came from documents detailing how a judge scolded the NSA in 2009 for violating its own procedures and lying to intelligence courts designed to safeguard some shred of American privacy.
“The government has compounded its noncompliance with the court’s orders by repeatedly submitting inaccurate descriptions of the alert list process” to the court, Judge Reggie B. Walton wrote in a 2009 ruling. “It has finally come to light that the F.I.S.C.’s authorizations of this vast collection program have been premised on a flawed depiction of how the N.S.A. uses” the data.
This, Leahy concedes, is indicative of a major malfunction in the Nation’s massive surveillance apparatus.
“When senior officials at the NSA do not themselves understand the technical boundaries of the programs they manage, or when they give inaccurate explanations to the court — and they have — how do we expect the court to fulfill its role? It can’t be done,” Leahy said.
According to the lawmaker, Congress should rapidly consider “structural changes” to how the surveillance courts operate and make it easier inspectors general to conduct oversight.
“We must find a way to discuss publicly the outer bounds of government authority to surveil Americans,” he said. “Congress was able to do that in the 1970s when it developed FISA [Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act], and I am confident we can do it again.”