It turns out Dianne Feinstein’s bark is worse than her bite.
On Thursday, the chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee ushered in a new bill for reforming the surveillance practices of the National Security Agency that retains the structure of its controversial bulk telephone metadata program while adding modest reporting and oversight requirements.
The bill, which places much lighter restrictions on the NSA compared to a rival reform effort by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VA) and Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI), comes just days after Feinstein sent shockwaves through the intelligence community with a public scolding of the NSA’s surveillance of foreign leaders.
"It is abundantly clear that a total review of all intelligence programs is necessary so that members of the Senate Intelligence Committee are fully informed as to what is actually being carried out by the intelligence community," Feinstein said Monday.
Given her reputation as a staunch defender of NSA practices and the White House’s refusal to stand by collection activities targeting foreign leaders, some in the intelligence community feared a wide-ranging crackdown on the agency.
"We’re really screwed now," one NSA official told The Cable. "You know things are bad when the few friends you’ve got disappear without a trace in the dead of night and leave no forwarding address."
However, today’s bill appeared to put some of those concerns to rest by codifying many of the NSA’s most controversial policies.
Its key oversight additions include the establishment of criminal penalties of up to 10 years in prison for inappropriately accessing data acquired under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA); new requirements for yearly reports on the number of queries of the NSA’s phone metadata database; restrictions on which employees can query the call-records; and the authorization of a representative to appear before the FISA court to "provide independent perspectives" on privacy issues.
Opponents of the bill, which passed by an 11-4 vote, say it does not go far enough in curtailing the NSA’s expansive surveillance powers.
"I fought on the committee to replace this bill with real reform, and I will keep working to ensure our national security programs show the respect for the U.S. Constitution that Coloradans tell me they demand," said Sen. Mark Udall (D-CO) in a statement. "The NSA’s ongoing, invasive surveillance of Americans’ private information does not respect our constitutional values and needs fundamental reform – not incidental changes."
Defenders of the bill said it strikes the right balance between providing the NSA with the tools it needs to keep the country safe while offering privacy safeguards.
"I did vote for the bill," Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) told reporters following the vote. "I think it will strengthen oversight of our intelligence activities."
Feinstein agreed, emphasizing the reasons for not placing too many restrictions on the NSA. "Intelligence is necessary to protect our national and economic security, as well as to stop attacks against our friends and allies around the world," she said. "I believe the reforms in this bill are prudent, responsible and meaningful."
At issue, however, is the NSA’s lingering ability to collect and retain large amounts of American phone records under its current interpretation of the Patriot Act. "At its core … the bill endorses the most controversial of the NSA’s recently reported activities: the bulk collection of Americans’ domestic and international telephone call records," read a statement by the left-leaning Brennan Center for Justice.
The bill stands in stark contrast to a separate bill co-sponsored by Sensenbrenner and Leahy called the USA Freedom Act, which explicitly prohibits the bulk collection of Americans’ phone records.
"The intelligence committee bill and the USA Freedom Act present two opposing visions of the relationship between law-abiding Americans and the national security state," said Elizabeth Goitein, a co-director of the Brennan Center. "The fundamental question is: should the government have some reason to suspect wrongdoing before sweeping up Americans’ most personal information to feed into its databases? Leahy and Sensenbrenner say yes; Feinstein says no."
Others see less of a stark choice between the two bills. "There are a lot of good protections in the Senate bill," Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA), a member of the House Intelligence Committee, told The Cable. "But I would go further and call for a restructuring of the metadata program so that telecommunications providers hold onto their own data rather than the NSA retaining it. There’s no technological obstacle to retaining data this way."