Terror threat opens new front in NSA fight

A weekend terror threat that had top administration officials huddling at the White House, and provoked the State Department to close more than 20 diplomatic posts and issue a worldwide travel alert, has opened up a new front in the debate over the National Security Agency’s (NSA) surveillance programs. 

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A handful of lawmakers – most of them long-time national security hawks -- took to the Sunday news shows to declare the NSA programs a success, and credit the controversial surveillance methods, first uncovered when former contractor Edward Snowden divulged details to The Guardian, as directly responsible for uncovering a potential terrorist attack.

“These programs are controversial, we understand that,” Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) said on NBC's “Meet the Press.” “But they are also very important… If we did not have these programs, then we simply would not be able to listen in on the bad guys.”

And Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) argued on CNN’s “State of the Union” that by shedding light on the weekend terror threat, that “the NSA program is proving its worth yet again.”

“To the members of Congress who want to reform the NSA program, great,” he said. “If you want to gut it, you make us much less safe, and you're putting our nation at risk. We need to have policies in place that can deal with the threats that exist, and they are real, and they are growing.”

But not all lawmakers agreed that the surveillance was responsible for exposing a terrorist attack, and many, led by Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and other Libertarian-minded members of Congress, likely will continue to warn that the programs are a government intrusion on civil liberties and don’t make the country any safer.

“There's no indication, unless I'm proved wrong later, that that program which collects vast amounts of … domestic telephone data contributed to information about this particular plot,” Rep. Adam Schiff (R-Calif.), a senior member of the House Intelligence Committee, said on CNN's “State of the Union.”

The sparring came just hours before a CNN report appeared to contradict Schiff. CNN said it learned that U.S. officials intercepted a message from senior al Qaeda operatives in recent days that indicated an attack was imminent and was the impetus for the State Department’s precautionary measures.

But whether the NSA programs were directly responsible for preventing a weekend attack, new fissures emerged among supporters of the surveillance programs, who admitted that the programs could benefit from a review and potential overhaul.

Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said he and Chambliss attended a meeting with President Obama and about eight other members of Congress from both parties and chambers to discuss the merits and effectiveness of the programs.

“Do we need to collect all of the phone records of all of the people living in America for five years so that if we're going to target one particular person, we're ready to jump on it?” he asked on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “That is being discussed and debated. The president is open to suggestions to make this stronger and more responsive and transparent.”

Durbin said there were two areas where the programs should be reviewed.

“First is how much do you need to collect, who should hold this, does the government need all this information on everybody in this country?” he asked. “That's the first preliminary question that we're going to address. The second is the FISA court, this court we know very little about, it isn't public, how much authority should it have, what checks should be in place to make sure that there is at least an adversarial proceeding there when it comes to the issue of privacy and security.”

“I think that we're open to changes in both,” he added. “The president is committed to the safety of this country. But let's do everything we can to protect the privacy of innocent Americans.”

In addition to potential changes to the programs, some members of Congress say they’re being stonewalled in attempts to learn more about the programs.

The Guardian newspaper on Sunday published a story that said members of Congress were being blocked from obtaining all the information they sought on the programs.

“Two House members, GOP Rep. Morgan Griffith of Virginia and Democratic Rep. Alan Grayson of Florida, have provided the Guardian with numerous letters and emails documenting their persistent, and unsuccessful, efforts to learn about NSA programs and relevant FISA court rulings,” Glenn Greenwald, the reporter-activist who has been breaking the NSA stories, wrote. “ 'If I can't get basic information about these programs, then I'm not able to do my job,’ Rep. Griffith told me.”

Chambliss disputed this notion.

“Well, if they are, it's their own fault because all they have to do is ask,” he shot back. “And we make available within the confines of the intelligence community where, it's what we call a skip, where classified information can be reviewed. All members of Congress have the ability to come in and review most of the documents that are involved in these programs.”