Congressional Skepticism About Surveillance Grows Post-NSA Leak

The PRISM program collects content, like email messages, but only involves non-Americans who are thought to be located overseas.

Lawmakers fear both programs violate the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which guards against unreasonable search and seizure.

“I feel very uncomfortable about using aggregated metadata on hundreds of millions of Americans,” Conyers added. “This is unsustainable, it’s outrageous and must be stopped immediately.”

Kate Martin, director of the Center for National Security Studies, agreed, telling the committee that “the unprecedented, massive collection of information on Americans, the creation of secret databanks which are available for government analysis, queries, and data-mining by ever increasingly sophisticated computerized tools and the dissemination of both raw information and the results of such analysis or data-mining throughout the executive branch pose unprecedented threats to First and Fourth Amendment liberties.”

Martin also said government surveillance of American citizens “poses a significant and perhaps unprecedented challenge to our system of constitutional checks and balances.”

But Stewart Baker, an attorney and former NSA general counsel, argued that previous efforts to rein in intelligence-gathering efforts were at least partially responsible for the reason the U.S. was caught unaware on 9/11.

Baker expressed fear that new restraints on spy agency intelligence gathering “will leave us vulnerable to another security disaster.”

Several proposals to address concerns about surveillance practices are making the rounds in Capitol hallways, primarily dealing with efforts to make the FISA court at least somewhat more transparent.

Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) and Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) are offering legislation requiring the attorney general to declassify, when possible, FISA court opinions, which are currently classified, to provide lawmakers and privacy advocates with vital information on the panel’s legal interpretations. The proposal has attracted a number of co-sponsors and attracted companion legislation in the House.

Conyers, meanwhile, has introduced legislation aimed at limiting spy agency surveillance efforts while simultaneously requiring that FISA court opinions be made available to members of Congress and that a summary of the opinions be made public.

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