The Senate’s No. 2 Democrat on Friday joined the growing push in Congress against the National Security Agency’s sweeping collection of cellphone records, announcing that the Senate Appropriations Committee had approved a measure that would require the agency to make public declarations about the once-secret program.
Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., who’s the assistant Senate majority leader and the chairman of the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, said the measure was inserted into a Defense Department spending bill. A spokesman for Durbin called it the first legislative action a congressional committee has approved since former NSA contractor Edward Snowden revealed the agency’s data collection program. The full Senate will debate the spending bill when it returns from its five-week recess in September.
Durbin’s measure strikes a delicate balance between a growing call for curbs on the NSA program and a reluctance on the part of the Obama administration and congressional leaders to sharply limit it.
Unlike a narrowly defeated measure in the House of Representatives that would have barred the NSA from spending any money on the program, effectively killing it, Durbin’s proposal would allow it to continue but would require that the agency make public more information on the program, which the secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court authorized under Section 215 of the Patriot Act.
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The measure would require the agency to report the number of phone records it’s gathered and to make public the details of any other bulk data-collection programs it operates, including when they began, how much they cost and what types of records are being collected, and to list any terrorist plots that the programs have thwarted.
The added reporting requirements would do nothing to rein in the agency’s ability to collect the data, which may be one reason the bill soared through the Appropriations Committee. Durbin’s office was optimistic that lawmakers on both sides of the aisle will support the added transparency measures, but most senators had left Washington on Friday to begin their vacation and were unavailable for comment.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., the chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee and a staunch supporter of the collection program, declined to comment.
Whether the measures will stanch the rising anger over the collection program was less certain. Last week, the House defeated a proposal by Rep. Justin Amash, R-Mich., that would have killed the program by starving it of funding. The vote was 217-205, an outcome that came only after heavy lobbying by supporters of the program, including hours-long visits to the Capitol by the director the NSA, Army Gen. Keith Alexander, and the director of national intelligence, James Clapper, as well as tough campaigning by House Speaker John Bohner, R-Ohio, and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.
The support for the measure by 111 Democrats and 94 Republicans, and the anger evident in committee hearings, rattled the White House, which invited Durbin and eight other legislators, including some of the staunchest critics of the program, to meet Thursday with President Barack Obama.
Though it’s part of the spending bill, Durbin’s measure doesn’t directly tie funding to the NSA’s following through on the reporting requirements, which require the agency to make public details it’s been reluctant to disclose.
One of them is how much the collection programs cost, a question that’s been asked repeatedly at recent hearings but that Obama administration officials have refused to answer publicly, saying the figure is classified. Officials have said they’d divulge it in a closed briefing.
Durbin’s measure would require the NSA to disclose the number of terrorist plots that were disrupted because of the collection of the telephone data and whether the information could have been obtained through other means. The requirement signals the growing skepticism among lawmakers about the veracity of the agency’s claims that the program has thwarted more than 50 terrorist plots, a number most recently disputed Wednesday at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, at which Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., asked officials how many times telephone metadata had been crucial to stopping attacks.
“That’s a very difficult question to answer insomuch that it’s not necessarily how these programs work. That’s actually not how these programs work,” NSA Deputy Director John Inglis said. “What happens is you simply have a range of tools at your disposal.”
Durbin’s effort is one of several legislative pushes introduced in recent weeks to address the NSA’s data collection programs. Sens. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., Tom Udall, D-N.M., and Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., introduced legislation Thursday that would change the operations of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which approves requests for government surveillance programs.
Leahy is sponsoring a bill that would limit the NSA’s data collection abilities as well as speed up the date of their expiration and add reporting requirements. Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., said at Wednesday’s hearing that he planned to introduce legislation that would add reporting requirements similar to Durbin’s.
But of all the recent efforts from congressional leadership, Durbin’s is the furthest along the road to approval. No other piece of legislation has made it to the floor with committee approval nor has any other been backed by a member of the leadership.