Sen. Feinstein unveils her own bill to reform the NSA’s spying practices

September 26, 2013

U.S. Senate (Select) Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) speaks with Director of National Intelligence James Clapper (2nd L), National Security Agency Director General Keith Alexander and Deputy Attorney General James Cole (R) before they testify at a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act legislation on Capitol Hill in Washington, Sept. 26, 2013. (REUTERS/Jason Reed)

The movement to change the rules governing the National Security Agency's surveillance activity is picking up steam.

Wednesday, a handful of lawmakers led by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) unveiled a bill that would end the collection of American metadata en masse and make it easier to sue the government for civil liberties violations, among other provisions.

Now the leaders of the Senate Intelligence Committee are proposing a bill of their own. Backed by NSA defender Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), this bill is likely to be weaker than Wyden's, but is still aimed at improving transparency at the agency responsible for gathering call records from millions of Americans.

Feinstein said in a Thursday hearing that her intention was to "change, but preserve" the metadata collection program.

Among the provisions will be a requirement that the NSA publish an annual transparency report — which the government has already voluntarily said it will do — and stricter limitations on how long collected metadata may be stored. The bill will also establish clearer guidelines on the standard for "reasonable, articulable suspicion" that currently dictates when a given phone number may be monitored by the NSA. For example, Feinstein said, when the standard is met, the NSA may be required to inform the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court of the decision.

At the same time, the bill would give the NSA even greater powers to spy on foreign suspects, by giving the agency a seven-day window during which the NSA could ask the FISA court for a traditional warrant when such a suspect arrives in the United States (right now, the NSA's right to monitor a foreign national ends when he arrives).

Intelligence officials Thursday suggested they would be open to appointing an independent public advocate who would serve as an adversary before the FISA court. That's an idea put forth by Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), which will be included in Wyden's package.

"We have to be willing to think about tools that are outside of government," said Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.).

In response, U.S. Deputy Attorney General James Cole said a public advocate might be appropriate on a case-by-case basis, such as when the FISA court faces a "novel legal issue."

That alone isn't likely to appease Wyden, who at Thursday's Intelligence Committee hearing grilled President Obama's top spy on the agency's possible collection of geolocation data.

"Has the NSA ever collected or ever made plans to collect location information?" Wyden asked pointedly.

James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, refused to answer the question in an unclassified setting and referred Wyden to several documents the government had delivered to Congress in private.

Wyden's reputation for dropping unsubtle hints about the NSA has led many to suspect that the agency may indeed be collecting location data from cellular towers.

 

More revelations about the NSA and geolocation information could still be coming. For now, however, Feinstein intends to move her bill forward sometime next week, setting up a clash with Wyden's. Expect fireworks.

Brian Fung covers technology for The Washington Post.
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