The Cable

As It Stands, Feinstein Would Vote ‘No’ on Surveillance Reform

In its current form, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, would vote against major legislation to reform the National Security Agency’s bulk metadata collection program, the California Democrat said Thursday. "Do I intend to vote for it? I’m giving that real consideration. Right now, no, but that’s subject to change," she ...

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In its current form, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, would vote against major legislation to reform the National Security Agency’s bulk metadata collection program, the California Democrat said Thursday.

"Do I intend to vote for it? I’m giving that real consideration. Right now, no, but that’s subject to change," she said, after walking out of a closed committee hearing. Her committee colleagues, including Sens. Angus King (I-Maine), Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), and Mark Warner (D-Va.) also expressed skepticism over the USA Freedom Act, which would end much of the government’s bulk data collection activities.

In a surprising move this week, Sen. Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) filed a motion that would bring a procedural vote on the legislation as early as Tuesday and a final vote by the end of the week.

Just a few days ago, the USA Freedom Act looked like it had a slim chance of passing in the lame-duck session of Congress, which would have forced its authors to reintroduce it and start all over again in the next Congress. Conventional wisdom held that the bill was not a Reid priority and given the jam-packed legislative agenda and ticking clock, stood slim chance of coming to the Senate floor. However, late Wednesday, the majority leader took the first step toward a Senate vote for the bill by filing cloture — a necessary parliamentary procedure.

The bill, which is broadly supported by the intelligence and technology communities, the Obama administration, and civil liberties groups, would end the government’s collection of domestic metadata — the time stamp and numbers of phone calls. Phone companies would still be allowed to retain those records but intelligence agencies would only be able to access them with permission from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. The bill also includes other measures that would change the way the NSA does business, including more specific definitions of what is considered a surveillance target.

Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), who sponsored the bill in the Senate, pushed hard to have the bill that already passed the House considered before Republicans take control of the chamber in January. His partner in the House, Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), was equally eager to get the bill over the finish line in the 113th Congress.

"The American people are wondering whether Congress can get anything done," Leahy stated. "The answer is yes. Congress can and should take up and pass the bipartisan USA Freedom Act, without delay."

Sensenbrenner added: "It is past time for Washington to ensure Americans’ civil liberties are protected while preserving important intelligence gathering authorities that are vital to our national security."

Civil liberties groups also lauded Reid’s move.

"Because of the NSA’s overreaching, our intelligence agencies have lost the trust of the American people and our allies," said Elizabeth Goitein, co-director of the Brennan Center’s Liberty and National Security Program. "There is no reason to continue a program that vacuums up the data of innocent Americans without any proven counterterrorism benefit."

If the bill is passed, it would likely end Washington’s political debate about NSA surveillance of American citizens. More than a year after Edward Snowden’s revelations about NSA spying, momentum for reform appeared to be waning. Reid’s action ensures that, at the very least, the Senate will be forced to decide whether to debate what civil liberties groups have praised as an important change to the way the NSA does business.

"The USA Freedom Act is a good first step towards successful surveillance reform," the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a civil liberties group, stated. "It will limit the NSA’s program collecting Americans’ calling records, introduce a special advocate into the secretive court overseeing the spying, and introduce much needed transparency requirements." 

In explaining her opposition to the USA Freedom Act, Feinstein said it puts onerous regulations on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, the judicial body tasked with overseeing the government’s surveillance requests. (The bill would install a public defender to advocate on behalf of Americans’ privacy, a provision that is not included in the bill she introduced in the Intelligence Committee.) "A major [disagreement] is the language for the public advocate, which the court has written a public letter in opposition to," she said. "[Our bill] an amicus provision that the court is in agreement with and that’s very important to me."

It’s unclear if the bill has enough support in the Senate to garner the 60 votes needed to bring it to the floor for full debate and a final passage vote. Some lawmakers feel it doesn’t do enough to rein in the NSA while others think it limits the NSA too severely. "I think it severely limits our capabilities in an increasingly dangerous and complex world," Rubio told Foreign Policy after Thursday’s closed hearing. "The concern is that it limits our ability to identify threats to America and the homeland in a timely way." 

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