A senior member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence urged fellow legislators Tuesday to rein in sweeping data collection programs before they become an irreversible part of American society.
Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., made the plea in a speech at the Center for American Progress, a liberal Washington think tank, as senior intelligence community officials visited Congress to lobby against a proposal that could be voted on as soon as Wednesday that would cut funding for the National Security Agency’s collection of cellphone records and would place limits on the amount of data the NSA could collect.
Army Gen. Keith Alexander, the NSA’s director, met with several members of the House of Representatives, and he and NSA Deputy Director John Inglis were later seen going in to a closed-door meeting with the Senate Intelligence Committee.
Although bipartisan support makes the passage of the limitations possible in the House, the chances of their making it through the Senate are slim. Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and ranking committee member Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., defended the surveillance program and encouraged legislators to continue its funding.
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“The (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act) business records program has contributed to disrupting numerous terrorist attacks against our nation,” they said in a statement. “It has been reviewed and authorized by all three branches of government and is subject to strict controls.”
The White House also urged the House to reject the limitations, which are contained in an amendment to a defense spending bill. In a statement, the White House said the limitations were a “blunt approach” that “would hastily dismantle one of our intelligence community’s counter terrorism tools.”
In his remarks, Wyden said that oversight had been lacking on the program and that he and fellow Senate Intelligence Committee member Mark Udall, D-Colo., had tried to warn the country of the depth of the government’s surveillance but had been unable to speak plainly because of Senate rules.
It was only after NSA contract employee Edward Snowden leaked a secret court order that required Verizon to turn over to the NSA on a daily basis the records of millions of cellphone users that Wyden was able to speak freely about the program, he said.
“If we do not seize this unique moment in our constitutional history to reform our surveillance laws and practices, we will live to regret it,” he said.
“Sen. Mark Udall and I tried again and again to get the executive branch to be straight with the American public, but under the classification rules observed by the Senate, we are not even allowed to tap out the truth in Morse code,” he said. “And we tried just about everything else we could think of to warn the American people.”
Wyden blasted the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, the body that must approve surveillance requests, saying that the veil of secrecy behind which it functions negates the concept of balanced oversight. The court’s secret interpretations of the Patriot Act and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act are too broad, he said, and render the legislation unrecognizable.
“I tell Oregonians that there are effectively two Patriot Acts,” he said. “The first is the one they can read on their laptop in Medford or Portland, analyze and understand,” Wyden said. “Then there’s the real Patriot Act – the secret interpretation of the law that the government is actually relying on.”
Wyden’s fellow members of the Senate Intelligence Committee had little to say in response Tuesday afternoon. Many said they hadn’t read their colleague’s remarks
“I have not heard his speech, so I can’t comment on it. And I can’t comment on what we do in (the Intelligence Committee), and other members shouldn’t be commenting, either,” said Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla. “I don’t think we do a good service to the Intelligence Committee or our oversight responsibilities when we use the public forum to be critical of what we’re doing.”
Feinstein said she hadn’t heard Wyden’s speech. But, she said, “He’s free to speak out about it.”
David Lightman of the Washington Bureau contributed to this report.