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NSA Scandal Could Move Up from Backseat with Congressional Push

Can lawmakers “draw back the curtain on the secret law of government surveillance"?

Bill Straub


September 13, 2013 - 12:08 am

WASHINGTON – Congress is once again preparing to confront the issue of the surveillance policies adopted by the National Security Agency with committee chairmen on both sides of the political aisle revealing plans to hold additional hearings on snooping procedures.

Sen. Pat Leahy (D-Vt.), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and his counterpart in the House, Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), expressed an interest in delving even deeper into NSA practices and perhaps developing legislation intended to rein in the agency’s practice of obtaining domestic telephone records as part of the fight against terrorism.

The controversy has taken a back seat in recent weeks to the crisis in Syria and budget negotiations while Congress enjoyed a month-long recess. But lawmakers have expressed a desire to give it another look.

Goodlatte acknowledged that he had raised the issue personally with President Obama, urging him to bring more transparency to the nation’s intelligence-gathering programs to gain the trust of the American people. He also told the president his committee will continue its “aggressive and ongoing efforts to conduct oversight over these programs.”

“I plan to conduct additional oversight, including a classified hearing likely in September, so that we can thoroughly review the data collection programs used by the NSA, ensure that the laws we have enacted are executed in a manner that complies with the law and that protects Americans’ civil liberties, and determine if changes to current law are necessary,” Goodlatte said.

Leahy recently introduced the bipartisan FISA Accountability and Privacy Protection Act of 2013 in an effort to “strengthen privacy protections, accountability and oversight related to domestic surveillance.”

The measure would end the government’s authority to issue national-security letters used to force communications firms to transfer information to the government by June 2015. Thereafter the government would have to expand public reporting on the use of the letters and seek court orders to keep the letters secret.

The bill would also amend the Patriot Act, adopted in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, to require the federal government to prove the records it is seeking are relevant to its investigation. It would also, among other things, remove the one-year waiting period companies must now abide by before challenging a government requirement not to disclose a governmental solicitation of information.

Leahy said his panel intends to “draw back the curtain on the secret law of government surveillance” and “underscore the need for increased oversight and stronger protections for Americans’ privacy.”

That issue, he said, will “be the subject of another Judiciary Committee hearing in the coming weeks.”

Public concern about the federal government’s surveillance practices was raised as the result of revelations by Edward Snowden, a former contractor with the National Security Agency and onetime Central Intelligence Agency employee, who leaked details about U.S. surveillance programs to the press.

Snowden, who recently was granted asylum in Russia for one year, revealed that the NSA was collecting telephone metadata, most of it involving American citizens, in an effort to thwart terrorist initiatives under Section 215 of the Patriot Act. Snowden also offered details about another program, code-named PRISM, which monitored Internet communications for the same purpose.

The secret initiatives were approved by the U.S. Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which oversees sensitive security practices and operates behind closed doors.

Under Section 215, the so-called FISA court permitted the NSA to gather telephone company records that contain numbers that were dialed, the date and time when the call was placed, and the length of the connection. The information passed on to intelligence agencies doesn’t contain the identity of those involved in the connection.

The PRISM program collects content, like email messages, but only involves non-Americans who are thought to be located overseas. The initiatives, an outgrowth of the 9/11 terrorist attacks that killed almost 3,000, began during the administration of former President George W. Bush.

The court determined, according to the document, that the federal government may access otherwise confidential phone records when the executive branch provides information “giving rise to a reasonable, articulable suspicion” that the numbers could lead to terrorists.

Obama has proved unable to escape the controversy even while pondering military action in Syria. Last week, during a one-day stopover in Stockholm, Sweden, en route to the G-20 meeting in St. Petersburg, Russia, the president attempted to reassure allies about the nation’s surveillance practices.

“I can give assurances to the publics in Europe and around the world that we’re not going around snooping at people’s emails or listening to their phone calls,” Obama said at a news conference. “What we try to do is to target very specifically areas of concern.”

The president did acknowledge in reference to surveillance regulations that “we had to tighten them up” and that technological advances may require further changes. The NSA is looking over procedures with an eye toward developing a proper balance between national security needs and civil liberties.

“There may be situations in which we’re gathering information just because we can that doesn’t help us with our national security but does raise questions in terms of whether we’re tipping over into being too intrusive,” Obama said. The U.S. is consulting with various governments, including the European Union, to determine “their areas of specific concern and trying to align what we do in a way that, I think, alleviates some of the public concerns that people may have.”

Not everyone is satisfied with the steps taken by the administration. Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), ranking member on the Senate Judiciary Committee, dispatched a letter to Dr. George Ellard, the NSA’s inspector general, asking him to respond to reports that his office is aware of documented instances showing that NSA personnel intentionally and willfully abused their surveillance authorities.

Grassley didn’t say where the information came from. He further asked that Ellard provide as much information as possible in an unclassified manner.

“The American people are questioning the NSA and the FISA court system,” Grassley said. “Accountability for those who intentionally abused surveillance authorities and greater transparency can help rebuild that trust and ensure that both national security and the Constitution are protected.”

On another front, Facebook and Yahoo, two communications giants, have filed suit in Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court on Monday seeking permission to reveal how frequently the NSA snoops on those who employ their services.

Google and Microsoft filed similar legal actions earlier.

The tech giants are maintaining the revelations would promote transparency and would not infringe on national security.

Washington freelancer Bill Straub is former White House correspondent for Scripps Howard News Service.

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There's a guy down the street that has a locker full of guns. And, he's ALWAYS buying ammo. He must be a mass murderer.

There's this story of Lincoln from the days he served as a lawyer for the railroad. The railroad was hated by all and they never won when the jury was made up of citizens. Well, the courtroom broke for lunch and, since it was a small town, they all retired to the one eatery. They all refrained from discussing the case but Lincoln told one of his famous stories: A farmer, at work in his field, is interrupted by his young son who breathlessly says "Pa, Sis is in the hayloft with the hired hand and she's lifted her skirts and dropped her drawers and the hired hand dropped his britches. Pa, I think they's gunna pee on the hay." The old farmer looked sadly at his son and said "Son, I have no doubt you have all your facts straight but you have come to a completely wrong conclusion."

For the record, I work on the fringes of the NSA and I've been there since before most of youall were born. Now, I am reading things in the news that I cannot comment on and seeing everyone come to a completely wrong conclusion. The internet pipes are full of instant experts that wouldn't know the NSA from a Boyscout jamboree.

What, pray tell, would the NSA do with whatever they got from the records of US persons? What would motivate the NSA to spy on Americans? If the NSA is spying on Americans why is no one in jail; after-all, the Constitution hasn't yet been repealed. By all means, the Congress should look into it. They should never stop looking into it just as they should not have stopped (if they did). But Americans have a responsibility to rest their concerns with the actions of the empowered committees and Congress.

I can imagine, since there is a virulent Democrat in the White House, it's fun to cast stones since we are certain that this president wants to enact an American soviet state, but why the NSA? They are an arm of the military with their eyes focused outside the US. Whatever they do, they do driven by their mission; an overseas mission. Just like the guy with a locker full of guns. The guns are almost irrelevant to his motivation.

Are you worried about someone reading your emails (the ones you send on an unencrypted network) or listening to your phone calls? When the NSA wants data they go to the ISP's, the phone service provers and the email providers. Any government agency can do that and you can bet that the IRS, the FBI, the DEA, the ATF and a host of new agencies has more to gain from the information about you that the NSA, which doesn't give a whit about you. And, don't forget, the ISP's, the phone companies, the email providers have access to ALL of your info. They are the ones "collecting" your information. Who's watching them? I just read that there is a new Federal agency that expects to data-mine over 70% of credit card transactions. (Data-mine means to apply a robotic computer program against a block of data looking for predefined things)

Back in the day when we all hated phone numbers with "0's" and "9's," mail came in an envelope with the "to" and "from" address' on the outside where everyone could see and the best thing ever was a new pitcher of Koolaid it was held that dialed phone numbers and the outside of envelopes were public information not protected by privacy concerns. Things have changed some since then. The metadata that is related to the afore mentioned data is also held to be public information. But we only had bored gumshoes to worry about in those heady days. Now any agency with couple of hundred thou worth of computers can glean just about anything from this metadata. It's time to have a public conversation about the public use of this personal metadata.

But you can forget about the NSA; they so much don't care about you and this current angst is akin to letting a squirrel go in church so no one will hear the sermon.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
The most serious scandal so far is the IRS scandal because everyone is touched by the IRS.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
With obama's stooges, eric holder and harry reid, in place to provide roadblock after roadblock, nothing will come of any of this.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Goodlatte acknowledged that he had raised the issue personally with President Obama, urging him to bring more transparency to the nation’s intelligence-gathering programs ...


You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Maybe congress could pass a law!!
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
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