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NSA Faces Critical Nation

Debate shifts toward limits on surveillance and data collection

December 20, 2013
The Intelligencer / Wheeling News-Register

WASHINGTON (AP) - In a sharp and unexpected shift, the national debate over U.S. government surveillance seems to be turning in favor of reining in the National Security Agency's expansive spying powers at home and abroad.

It's happened suddenly, over a span of just three days. First, a federal judge ruled that the NSA's bulk collection of telephone records was unconstitutional, and then a presidential advisory panel recommended sweeping changes to the agency. Together, the developments are ratcheting up the pressure on President Barack Obama to scale back the controversial surveillance programs.

Even Russian President Vladimir Putin chimed in on Thursday. He said U.S. surveillance efforts are necessary to fight terrorism and "not a cause for repentance," but he, too, said they should be limited by clear rules.

Article Photos

AP Photo
National Security Agency Director Gen. Keith Alexander testifies on Capitol Hill on Dec. 11 before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Obama is in no way obligated to make substantial changes. And, countering the public criticism he faces, he hears internal appeals from intelligence officials who insist the collection of phone and Internet data is necessary to protect the U.S. from terror attacks.

But even that argument has been undermined in the course of an extraordinary week. Federal Judge Richard Leon said in a ruling on Monday - its effect stayed, pending appeal - that even if the phone data collection is constitutional, there is little evidence that it has prevented terror attacks. The intelligence advisory panel, which had access to significant amounts of classified information and counted as a member a former acting director of the CIA, came to the same conclusion in its 300-page report.

Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., a fierce critic of the NSA programs, concluded, "What this says to the millions of Americans who have been concerned that the government knows who they called and when they called and for how long, this says it wasn't essential for preventing attacks."

The White House has already rejected one proposal from the task force, which would have allowed for a civilian to head the NSA. While Obama spokesman Jay Carney said Thursday that the president was open to each of the panel's other 45 recommendations, a U.S. official familiar with the deliberations said that Obama rejected a handful of the proposals out of hand when he met with the panel members this week.

The president indicated he was comfortable with about half of the recommendations but thinks some others need further study, according to the official. That official commented only on condition of anonymity because the official was not authorized to discuss the process by name.

Congress has been jarred by the new focus on government surveillance. For years, lawmakers had shown little interest in curtailing the programs, but a coalition of conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats has now taken up the issue.

However, Capitol Hill appears stuck over how to proceed. A broad bipartisan coalition in the House is backing legislation that would prohibit the NSA from collecting hundreds of millions of telephone records every day from U.S. phone companies. But congressional leaders, who have been briefed for years on the classified terrorist-tracking programs, generally support more modest changes to the surveillance systems and have sidelined the House measure.

The chairs of both the House and Senate intelligence committees have also championed more-limited legislation that would call for greater court and congressional oversight of the NSA.

At least before the review group's report, the Obama administration was backing the intelligence committees' bill. However, the review group's recommendations - if Obama accepts some of them - could change the dynamic once again.

The mere consideration of rolling back the government's vast surveillance powers marks a psychological shift for a nation that was set on edge by the terror attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. President George W. Bush faced little resistance from Congress when he implemented the USA Patriot Act, the law Congress approved that covers the surveillance programs. And opinion polling at the time indicated Americans were broadly willing to give up privacy for the sake of security.

But in the 12 years following the attacks, there has been no comparable large-scale terror incident in the U.S. The public has also learned much more about the government's surveillance activities, most recently in a wave of disclosures from former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.

Snowden's most explosive disclosures focused on the NSA's bulk collections of Americans' phone and internet records. The agency claims it does not listen to the content of the calls, nor does it read Internet messages without specific court approval to do so on a case-by-case basis.

 
 

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