By Patricia Zengerle
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Democratic and Republican U.S. senators introduced legislation on Wednesday to end the National Security Agency’s bulk collection of Americans’ communication records and set other new controls on the government’s electronic eavesdropping programs.
The measure introduced by Democrats Ron Wyden, Mark Udall and Richard Blumenthal, and Republican Rand Paul, is one of several efforts making their way through Congress to rein in sweeping surveillance programs.
The Senate Intelligence Committee is holding a public hearing on Thursday when the panel’s leaders are expected to discuss their surveillance reforms, the Senate Judiciary Committee is addressing the issue and several members of the House of Representatives have also introduced legislation.
“The disclosures over the last 100 days have caused a sea change in the way the public views the surveillance system,” said Wyden, a leading congressional advocate for tighter privacy controls, told a news conference.
The surveillance programs have come under intense scrutiny since disclosures this spring by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden that the government collects far more Internet and telephone data than previously known.
The legislation introduced on Wednesday combines several surveillance reforms that legislators had introduced separately.
Besides banning the bulk collection of Americans’ records, it would create the position of “constitutional advocate” to represent the public in the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court that oversees the eavesdropping programs.
And it would let Americans affected by the eavesdropping sue for damages in U.S. courts and allow companies to disclose more information about cooperation with government surveillance.
“These reforms are the right thing to do, but they are also essential to the public believing that the system is complying with the law,” Blumenthal said.
Many members of Congress staunchly defend the surveillance programs as an essential defense against terrorist attacks, but support for change has been growing.
In a 217-205 vote in July, the House narrowly defeated an amendment to an appropriations bill that would have sharply limited the NSA’s ability to collect electronic information.
The strong support for the amendment – bolstered by an unlikely alliance of liberal Democrats and libertarian Republicans – surprised many congressional observers because House leaders and members of the Intelligence Committee had strongly opposed it.
Given the level of dissent – and widespread public concern – lawmakers said they expected some reforms would be included in the National Defense Authorization Act, which Congress is due to pass late this year to authorize Defense Department programs.
(Reporting by Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Ken Wills)