Leahy introduces bill seeking expanded oversight of surveillance programs


Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt. gestures during a hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington in this May 16, 2012, file photo. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

The chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee on Monday renewed long-frustrated efforts to expand congressional oversight of government surveillance programs following disclosures about the intelligence community’s collection of phone and Internet records.

The FISA Accountability and Privacy Protection Act, introduced Monday by Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), would raise the legal bar the government must meet before obtaining call detail records from U.S. phone companies, effectively narrowing the scope of collection.

The bill would amend Section 215 of the Patriot Act to require officials to demonstrate that the phone records sought are relevant not only to an authorized investigation but that they also have links to a foreign terrorist group or power.

The new push comes amid public outcry over disclosure this month of the top-secret phone data collection program in Britain’s Guardian newspaper, which obtained a classified document from Edward Snowden, the former government contractor facing federal espionage charges.

A separate provision in Leahy’s bill would terminate Section 702 of the FISA Amendments Act, which authorizes a far-reaching Internet surveillance program, in June 2015 — two years sooner than its current expiration date. Details of that program, called PRISM by the National Security Agency, were revealed in articles based on documents obtained by The Washington Post and the Guardian from the same NSA contractor.

President Obama said the United States is "working with various other countries to make sure that rule of law is observed" in finding Edward Snowden.

The full Senate has rejected previous attempts by Leahy and other colleagues to win approval for such measures, including in December, when Section 702 was up for reauthorization. It likewise defeated an effort to narrow Section 215 of the Patriot Act during a 2011 reauthorization.

Following the recent disclosures, Leahy and other lawmakers concerned about the reach into Americans’ private communications may have new momentum.

Leahy’s bill is co-sponsored by Sens. Mike Lee (R-Utah), Mark Udall (D-Colo.), Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and Jon Tester (D-Mont.). Udall and Wyden, members of the Intelligence Committee, have introduced similar legislation to narrow the scope of Section 215.

“The recent public revelations about two classified data collection programs have brought renewed attention to the use of government surveillance powers, which deserve close scrutiny by Congress,” Leahy said in a statement. “The comprehensive legislation that I am introducing today will not only improve the privacy protections and accountability provisions associated with these authorities, but also strengthen oversight and transparency provisions in other parts of the USA Patriot Act.”

The legislation calls for an unclassified report summarizing the impact of the surveillance program on Americans’ privacy. It also would mandate formal reviews of Patriot Act Section 215 and the FISA Amendments Act Section 702.

Privacy advocates have argued that the government has interpreted those provisions too broadly, allowing authorities to collect the records of millions of Americans with no connection to foreign terrorism investigations. The Obama administration has argued that the broad collection of telephone and Internet data has proven critical to disrupting terrorism plots against U.S. interests.

Aaron Blake covers national politics and writes regularly for The Fix.
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