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Senate bill would eliminate mass collection of phone records, reform FISA court

Published time: September 25, 2013 23:14
Edited time: September 27, 2013 11:03
AFP Photo /  Spencer Platt

AFP Photo / Spencer Platt

A bipartisan group of US lawmakers has introduced legislation that, if approved, would attempt to strengthen civil liberties and curb the power of the secret FISA courts that approved widespread foreign and domestic NSA surveillance policies.

The bill, dubbed the Intelligence Oversight and Surveillance Reform Act, bundles a number of ideas proposed in roughly 12 other bills drafted in the wake of the leaks by NSA contractor-turned  whistleblower Edward Snowden, which first began in June.

The legislation would prevent the National Security Agency from bulk-collecting Americans’ phone records under section 215 of the Patriot Act, easily the most polarizing stipulation in that law. The bill would also eliminate the NSA's authority to install so-called “backdoors” to monitor Americans’ various methods of internet communication.
However, according to The Guardian, there is little congressional support for any bill that would prevent the NSA from monitoring foreigners.

Democratic Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon revealed the Intelligence Oversight and Surveillance Reform Act in a press conference Wednesday alongside Senator Rand Paul, a Republican.

The disclosures over the last 100 days have caused a sea change in the way the public views the surveillance system,” Wyden said. “We are introducing legislation that is the most comprehensive bipartisan intelligence reform proposal since the disclosures of last June.”

If the bill passes technology companies will no longer be prohibited from revealing how many surveillance requests the government issued for users’ data. A privacy watchdog would also be instituted.

The overbroad surveillance activities that have come to light over the last few months have shown how wide the gap between upholding the constitutional liberties of American citizens and protecting national security has become,” Wyden went on. “The effect can be felt not only by the significant erosion of civil liberties domestically, but in the reduced credibility of the American government abroad and the significant impact on American economic interests. These reforms seek to close that gap and avoid the false choice of protecting security over the preservation of personal liberty.”

Wyden, Udall and Paul were joined by Senators Mark Udall (D-Colorado) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Connecticut). Both lawmakers have worked to reform the secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Authority (FISA) court that has approved nearly all of the surveillance requests proposed by the NSA and other agencies.

US President Obama said last month his administration would dedicate itself to working with Congress to “pursue appropriate reforms” to the government’s surveillance policies. Yet forecasters already expect Obama, with the help of California Senator Dianne Feinstein, who is the chairman of the Senate Intelligence committee and close to the White House, to introduce a weaker bill that would not limit the current scope of NSA surveillance.

Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy said the White House has not made the case that seizing the phone records of millions of Americans constitutes “an effective counter-terrorism tool, especially in light of the intrusion on Americans’ privacy right.” Leahy is also known to back work on a bill similar to the Wyden proposal, and has said he is considering reforms to the FISA court.

Feinstein and the Senate Intelligence Committee are scheduled to hold a hearing Thursday in which a number of the proposed reforms will be discussed. James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, and General Keith Alexander, the director of the NSA, are both expected to testify against any changes that would limit the scope of their abilities.   

Alexander said Wednesday that despite the “sensationalized hype” around the “media leaks,” the indiscriminate collection of phone records is necessary because it allows the NSA to “join the dots” in terrorism cases.