NSA Scandal Could Move Up from Backseat with Congressional Push

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.