President Obama said, “America’s capabilities are unique. And the power of new technologies means that there are fewer and fewer technical constraints on what we can do. That places a special obligation on us to ask tough questions about what we should do.”

Carolyn Kaster • Associated Press,

The National Security Administration campus at Fort Meade, Md.

Patrick Semansky • Associated Press,

NSA debate to enter a volatile new phase

  • Article by: PETER BAKER and JEREMY W. PETERS
  • New York Times
  • January 18, 2014 - 7:37 PM


– The roiling debate over security and liberty did not end with President Obama’s newly announced overhaul of surveillance practices. Rather, it now enters a volatile next phase as intelligence agencies and a divided Congress try to turn principles into policy.

In responding to months of uproar about government spying, Obama left to be decided the details that would determine just how meaningful the change he promised would be. He asked security officials to develop ways to protect the privacy of foreigners. He asked Congress to help figure out how to store bulk telephone data. He invited other proposals to restructure a secret intelligence court.

All of which means that the future shape of a surveillance apparatus whose secrets have been uncomfortably exposed remains far from certain. The assurances Obama offered his critics may be made more nebulous by exceptions written into any new policies. The question of what to do with a vast trove of data on everyday Americans may elude policymakers who cannot agree on much. And yet legislators may find their usual politics scrambled by an issue that crosses party lines.

‘Some of this is still unclear’

“It’s the beginning of a long process, and the end on some of this is still unclear,” said former Rep. Jane Harman, an author of the last major surveillance law and now the president of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. “But the good news is now there’s a full debate in the Congress and in the country about our values and how to address security and liberty at the same time.”

The debate injects the touchy issue into the congressional arena as lawmakers enter an election year. Where once there was little popular demand for reining in the spy agencies, today momentum has built in some quarters after many disclosures by Edward Snowden, a former NSA contractor.

Obama’s approach, outlined in a much anticipated speech Friday, leaves intact the spy programs that have stirred so much debate but modifies them in hopes of persuading the public that they will not be abused. The NSA will have to get court permission to search a vast repository of telephone data and will not be able to expand the search as far as it did before.

But Obama had no answer for the biggest question involving the bulk data collection program. Although he said the government should no longer keep the data, he outlined flaws in the only two alternatives floated so far: leaving data with telecommunications providers or creating an independent consortium to store it. He assigned the attorney general, Eric Holder Jr., and the director of national intelligence, James R. Clapper Jr., to develop a plan and asked Congress to help.

“Reformers may not get all of what we want,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn. “But I think there’s a very real prospect of doing better than the president has proposed, and he’s acknowledged himself that there may be a need for taking additional steps.”

Others were not so certain. “This happens all the time in Washington,” said Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky. and a vocal critic of surveillance programs. “Everybody gets in an uproar — ‘Congress must act! Congress must act!’ But when they do act, they do something devious and don’t really address the problem.”

Indeed, supporters of the NSA programs say they expect Congress to resist undercutting programs that protect the public. “You will see changes at the margins with significant ambiguities and exceptions that will provide the executive branch with lots of flexibility,” predicted former Rep. Pete Hoekstra, R-Mich., a onetime chairman of the intelligence committee.

What distinguishes the surveillance issue from so many that have stymied a polarized Congress is that it does not follow easy patterns. The libertarian right, represented by Paul, has joined the liberal left, represented by such lawmakers as Sen. Bernard Sanders of Vermont, an independent who calls himself a socialist.

Possible clashes ahead

In the Senate, the debate sets up a possible clash among three of the most powerful Democrats: Sen. Dianne Feinstein, Patrick Leahy, chairman of the Judiciary Committee and an advocate for reforms; and Harry Reid of Nevada, the majority leader.

In the House, the issue pits Speaker John Boehner against some in his Republican caucus. Boehner has not endorsed the legislation that seems most likely to be the vehicle for the debate over NSA practices this year, which has been drafted by Leahy and Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin, a senior Republican who as an author of the Patriot Act holds considerable sway with his colleagues. The bill would end bulk data collection and establish an independent counsel to argue against government requests at the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.

“The bottom line is real reform cannot be done by presidential fiat,” Sensenbrenner said. “The president and intelligence community have repeatedly misled Congress and the American people and lack credibility for reform.”

© 2018 Star Tribune