Senate lawmakers expressed doubt about legislation to overhaul the National Security Agency’s bulk-data collection program Thursday as the U.S. marked the first anniversary of surveillance revelations from whistleblower Edward Snowden.
Last month, the House overwhelmingly passed the USA Freedom Act, legislation that would move bulk data collection from the NSA to phone companies.
It’s not clear yet what the Senate will do about the legislation. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said in a statement Thursday that he “will fight for a stronger USA Freedom Act” which “bans bulk collection of data, provides greater accountability and improves transparency.”
But members of another Senate committee with jurisdiction over the intelligence community — the Senate Intelligence Committee — took a dimmer view of the proposed NSA bulk data collection overhaul during a hearing on the legislation Thursday.
Senate Intelligence Committee members have often been more tolerant of the intelligence community’s surveillance efforts, so it’s not surprising members of both parties expressed reservations about the legislation Thursday. More notable will be what other Senators without ties to the intelligence community say about it.
Several Republicans on the intelligence committee questioned whether changes are needed at all. “We all need to step back and ask ourselves whether all of these changes are really necessary,” said Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., during the hearing.
Indiana Republican Sen. Dan Coats said “there has been significant misrepresentation of the current program” and urged his colleagues to make sure any legislation doesn’t “compromise our ability to detect and thwart threats against American citizens.”
Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., said she represents the NSA (which is located in Maryland) and was disturbed by the “continual demonization of the National Security Agency” and questioned why people thought “a telephone company would be a better, safer place” to hold call data.
Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., also questioned the need for the legislation, which is “unnecessary” and could lead to “unpredictable” results. The legislation “might make the public feel better but not be good for national security,” he said.
Notably, Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said the bipartisan House passage of the NSA bill sent “a very loud signal” to the Senate and said she believes her colleagues should look at the House legislation “with a view of its passage perhaps as amended through the Senate.”
She also expressed interest in clarifying a key definition in the House bill for the phrase “specific selection term,” which describes what sorts of data the NSA can collect. Privacy advocates and tech companies have argued that leaving the term undefined would give the NSA wiggle room to continue bulk data collection.
Tech companies and privacy advocates have complained the House legislation was watered down and would still allow the NSA to conduct broad bulk data collection because of overly broad definitions in the legislation.
On Thursday, Reform Government Surveillance, a tech industry group backed by Yahoo, Google, Microsoft, Apple and five other companies, published a full-page ad in several newspapers urging the Senate to “ensure that U.S. surveillance efforts are clearly restricted by law, proportionate to the risks, transparent and subject to independent oversight.”