WASHINGTON — The Senate Intelligence Committee on Thursday approved a bill that would make minor changes in the way the National Security Agency conducts surveillance programs and would require Senate confirmation of the head of the controversial agency.
But the bill, which passed on an 11-4 vote, was opposed by some of the committee’s most vociferous critics of the NSA and was likely to face further revision in the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., one of the four committee members who voted against the bill, said the bill simply sought to “codify overbroad surveillance practices that infringe on the constitutional rights of law-abiding Americans without making America any safer.”
“I voted against this legislation in committee, and I will strenuously oppose any similar attempts to codify overreaching government surveillance,” he said in a statement.
He was joined by Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., who also voted no.
“The NSA’s ongoing, invasive surveillance of Americans’ private information does not respect our constitutional values and needs fundamental reform – not incidental changes,” Udall said in a statement. “Unfortunately, the bill passed by the Senate Intelligence Committee does not go far enough to address the NSA’s overreaching domestic surveillance programs.”
Udall said that he had advocated prohibiting the agency’s bulk collection of Americans’ phone records under the Patriot Act and that he would continue to press for that change in legislation that he is co-sponsoring with Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Leahy did not directly criticize the bill, but his office said in a statement that a rival bill Leahy has proposed has more than 100 co-sponsors in the Senate and the House of Representatives, including House Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., a harsh critic of the NSA programs.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., the intelligence committee’s chair and a supporter of the NSA surveillance programs, defended them again on Thursday in a news release announcing committee passage of the legislation. “The NSA call-records program is legal and subject to extensive congressional and judicial oversight, and I believe it contributes to our national security,” she said.
She acknowledged, however, that five months of news stories about the surveillance programs, tied to leaks from former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, had made some kind of new legislation necessary “to increase transparency and build public support for privacy protections in place.”
“Today the committee passed a bipartisan bill to do just that,” she said. “The threats we face – from terrorism, proliferation and cyber attack, among others – are real, and they will continue. Intelligence is necessary to protect our national and economic security, as well as to stop attacks against our friends and allies around the world.”
Many of the bill’s provisions are aimed at requiring more reports to Congress about how often the NSA searches its vast stores of phone records that the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court has authorized the NSA to collect from cellphone companies. It also would require the NSA to report how often such a search leads to an FBI investigation.
The bill attempts to tighten oversight of such searches by requiring that records of each search be reviewed by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, and that the information generated by the search be destroyed if the court determines there was not enough evidence for such a search.
But the legislation would allow the NSA to maintain the records for five years – the current limit and longer than NSA head Gen. Keith Alexander told the House Intelligence Committee on Tuesday was necessary. In response to a question, Alexander said three years would suffice.
The acrimony within the committee, where both Wyden and Udall sought to eliminate the NSA’s authority to collect the records of Americans’ cellphone usage under the USA Patriot Act, is a foretaste of what is likely to be a tough legislative battle that will pit proponents and opponents of the NSA surveillances against members of their own party.
Leahy’s bill, for example, also has drawn support from Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., and Sensenbrenner.
Just Tuesday, Sensenbrenner told PBS’s “NewsHour” that he believes the vast collection of so-called cellphone metadata has hindered terrorist investigations.
“They have gone much further than the Patriot Act ever intended them to do,” Sensenbrenner said.
The interview gave a preview of how personal the battle is likely to become.
Reacting to a question about the House Intelligence Committee hearing that day, which featured NSA chief Alexander and the director of national intelligence, James Clapper, Sensenbrenner made it clear he thought several of the committee members were less than exacting in their questioning. That committee is led by another Republican, Rep. Mike Rogers of Michigan, who supports the NSA programs.
“What you heard from some of the people on the Intelligence Committee is that they’re cheerleaders for the NSA, rather than doing oversight,” he said. “They ought to be doing oversight, which means asking the tough questions, getting to the bottom of the issues.”
He was particularly critical of Feinstein, who acknowledged this week that she had not been told of the NSA monitoring of German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cellphone, a revelation that has created a diplomatic crisis. Sensenbrenner called Feinstein’s assertion “upsetting.”
“She is the chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee,” he said, “and if anybody ought to be briefed on that and ask the tough questions, it ought to be Sen. Feinstein. And she didn’t know anything about it at all.”