As questions continue to mount over the National Security Agency’s surveillance programs, Florida lawmakers are splitting between those who defend the programs as necessary and those worried about an invasion of privacy.
The mixed reaction reflects public opinion and the overall response on Capitol Hill.
“Clearly, a lot of what has happened over the past week raises a lot of questions about whether the intelligence agencies have gone too far in the collection of data,” said Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, who sat in a briefing about the program Tuesday with other House members.
“My concern is how much domestic data is swept in,” she said. “I think the security of the country is paramount but we can’t sacrifice our constitutional protections under the Fourth Amendment.”
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Rep. Trey Radel, a freshman Republican from Fort Myers, said: “It’s good that I’ve only been here six months because I’m not so jaded that I look at this and say, 'Oh, sure go ahead and look at everybody’s records.’ That’s what I’m hearing from some senior members. I want to know how there can be better oversight and whether there can be stricter parameters.”
Rep. Alan Grayson, a liberal Democrat from central Florida, quickly drafted an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act, up for vote this week, that would prevent the federal government from collecting information on U.S. citizens without probable cause of a terrorism offense or criminal offense.
“This amendment prevents the Defense Department from collecting any information about U.S. citizens within the country — no telephone records, no Internet records, no physical locations —unless there is probable cause of a terrorism (offense) or criminal offense,” Grayson said.
But others were more accepting of the phone and Internet surveillance as a necessary way to prevent attacks.
Both Florida senators have expressed support for the programs and say they are subject to oversight. Sen. Marco Rubio said news reports — based on leaked information — have not explained the full extent of the program and its safeguards.
“The threat that we face — largely radical, political Islamists — is probably a threat that is going to exist for the rest of our lifetimes. It’s just the reality. We have to deal with it. The world changed after 9/11, and it changed after Boston. It’s just a struggle to try to balance our deeply held convictions of privacy and freedoms and liberties with our need to provide for national security,” Rubio said.
Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson wrote in an op-ed Wednesday in the New York Daily News: “The U.S. intelligence community’s mission is to collect intelligence concerning terrorist organizations and potential threats to our national security. In furtherance of this mission, the government engages in a number of properly authorized and lawful data collection programs — two of which were leaked to the media this week.”
Referring to the intelligence contractor who exposed the secrets, Nelson wrote: “Edward Snowden is not a whistleblower. What Edward Snowden did amounts to an act of treason. And the Department of Justice should bring charges against him for deliberately taking classified information and leaking it in such a way that our enemies can use it against us.”
Nelson said the surveillance programs “both are lawful and court-approved programs.”
Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Weston, echoed that sentiment, telling a South Florida television station that Snowden “should be extradited, arrested and prosecuted.”
Wasserman Schultz voted against the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act that enabled the programs. She said that possible changes could be made on how long the government retains data, according to CBS 4 Miami.
Polls of U.S. public opinion show a mixed response to the controversy. A poll by the Washington Post and the Pew Research Center conducted over the weekend found Americans generally prioritize the government’s need to investigate terrorist threats over the need to protect personal privacy.
But a CBS News poll conducted June 9-10 showed that while most approve of government collection of phone records of Americans suspected of terrorist activity and Internet activities of foreigners, a majority disapproved of federal agencies collecting the phone records of ordinary Americans. Thirty percent agreed with the government’s assessment that the revelation of the programs would hurt the United States’ ability to prevent future terrorist attacks, while 57 percent said it would have no impact.
“I worry about this, I think it’s overreach. Saving files, saving information from Americans is the best step on the wrong road,” said Rep. Joe Garcia, D-Miami. “We’ve made tremendous sacrifices for our personal liberty in the hopes of trying to get some semblance of protection. My worry is that we’re paying too high a price. I think we have to have a much more frank discussion. Let’s put it up for a vote.”
Information from the Associated Press was used in the report.