Congress Now Expected To Revise NSA, FISA

Washington — In the four months since former defense contractor Edward Snowden revealed the National Security Agency’s electronic data collection programs, the question of intelligence restructuring has been persistent in Congress. Despite the focus on the government shutdown and the upcoming fight over the debt ceiling, a surge in legislation that touches on the surveillance programs suggests that the issue isn’t going away without some kind of action from lawmakers.

Twenty-two stand-alone bills have surfaced on Capitol Hill since Snowden’s leaks in June, ranging from minor changes to massive policy overhauls for the NSA and its metadata collection programs. The sheer number signals a collective agreement from lawmakers that some kind of legislative response is needed to curb growing public concern over the nation’s intelligence practices.

“Something is absolutely going to happen,” said Michelle Richardson, a legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union. “But the question is what. How aggressive will it be?”

Given the wide span of proposed changes, there’s no easy answer.

The bills touch on dozens of issues that the NSA controversy has raised. Some address only Section 215 of the USA Patriot Act, which allows the agency to collect domestic cellphone data from private companies. Others call for changes in the way the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court — the secret court that oversees NSA surveillance programs — operates. Still others would levy new reporting requirements on the agency’s programs.

The piecemeal legislative approach clouds a clear pathway to changing the programs. But recent weeks have seen the filing of more comprehensive proposals from high-profile voices on Capitol Hill, signaling that an overhaul may be more likely than the programs’ defenders once thought.

Last month, Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., a critic of the agency, unveiled what experts have called the most comprehensive NSA legislation to date. The bill, which also has drawn Republican support, would outlaw the bulk collection of metadata under the agency’s 215 program, forbid a program authorized by Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act from touching domestic data, change the way judges are appointed to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court and require more transparent reporting from the NSA and third-party companies.

Similar legislation is in the works from Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., who said he was working on a bill with Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., that also would outlaw bulk metadata collection, as well as change the FISA court and demand more transparency from the NSA’s programs.

Leahy and Sensenbrenner have been highly critical of the agency’s interpretation of the Patriot Act, and their calls for change carry extra weight.

“Leahy and Sensenbrenner were the ones who negotiated the first Patriot Act,” Richardson said. “It really means a lot to have them leading the reform charge.”

Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat who chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee, has announced plans to introduce legislation in coming days that would curb some of the NSA’s programs and require Senate confirmation for the head of the agency.

Although her proposals aren’t as comprehensive as those of her Senate colleagues, the fact that Feinstein, a defender of the NSA, is sponsoring revisions at all lifts hope among privacy advocates that the issue won’t simply be overwhelmed by other priorities.

“It’s a great sign that you have people like Feinstein announce that she’s doing her own bill,” Richardson said. “That’s an acknowledgement that this issue is not going away without some sort of congressional response.”