Senators skeptical of a proposal restraining National Security Agency bulk surveillance programs warn that passing such a bill could make it harder for the U.S. act against terrorist threats like ISIS.
“If you want to take away the ability to monitor ISIS, then you eliminate the tools that are eliminated in the Leahy bill,” Georgia Sen. Saxby Chambliss, the top Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said in a weekend Hill report. “I can’t imagine anybody wanting to do that.”
Shortly before the August recess Vermont Democrat and Judiciary Committee Chairman Sen Patrick Leahy unveiled the upper chamber’s most significant NSA reform bill to date, which narrows the agency’s authorities, sets higher requirements for data warrants, increases transparency and ends the bulk collection and storage of Americans’ phone data.
The bill has been endorsed by lawmakers across Capitol Hill, giants in Silicon Valley and the Obama administration. (RELATED: Senate Unveils New NSA Reform Bill, Silicon Valley, Privacy Advocates Praise)
However, such support does not extend all the way across the Intelligence Committee, where members including Chambliss and Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio claim hampering the agency’s abilities at such a crucial time could make it harder to counter terrorist groups like ISIS, which has gained significant ground in Iraq ad Syria, and threatened to attack U.S. interests.
“I’m always sensitive to protecting people’s privacy expectations and privacy rights, but I’m also concerned about eroding our capability to gather actionable intelligence that allows us to prevent attacks and take on our enemies,” Rubio said in the report, adding that Leahy’s bill would “absolutely” restrain NSA’s ability to track terrorists.
Attorney General Eric Holder and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper have endorsed the bill, and White House legal and intelligence officials deny any such restraint would occur. Leahy himself dismissed such claims.
“We’re always going to face threats,” Leahy said in the report. “The biggest one we can face is the threat to our own liberties and our own privacy.”
Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain said there was “no consensus” on the bill to begin with, and guessed that as the battle against ISIS ramps up, support for the bill will decline.
Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein — a staunch supporter of the agency in the wake of the Snowden leaks — said she is working on a few compromises to the bill with Leahy, and that she’s dedicated to moving it this year. Such support could be crucial for passage of the bill within a cramped, year-end legislative calendar ending amid a midterm election cycle.
“We’ve been trying to reconcile a couple of differences and so that’s what’s happened so far,” Feinstein said. “But I want a bill. I’ve been here long enough to figure out you can’t impose your individual will — there comes a time when you comprise to get something done.”