Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and a bipartisan group of senators offered legislation Monday to sunset some surveillance programs more than two years early to allow for proper congressional oversight.
Leahy said Congress needs to rein in the surveillance programs at the National Security Agency (NSA) after leaker Edward Snowden revealed it is collecting billions of phone and Internet records from millions of Americans who are not connected to terrorist investigations.
"This is an issue of saying, 'We want to know what our government is doing and why,' and as Americans we have the right to know what our government does and why," Leahy said in a speech on the Senate floor. "The recent revelations about two classified data collection programs have brought renewed attention to the government's broad surveillance authorities, but they also underscore the need for close scrutiny by Congress.
Sens. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Mike Lee (R-Utah), Jon Tester (D-Mont.), Mark Udall (D-Colo.) and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) are co-sponsors of the legislation.
The bill is the latest indication of bipartisan anger over the extent of government surveillance against average Americans. Earlier this month, a bipartisan group of House members proposed legislation similar to Leahy's that is aimed at limiting the scope of the NSA's authority.
However, many in leadership positions in the House and Senate have reacted to the leak by defending the bulk of the U.S. surveillance program, calling Snowden a traitor and saying he needs to face espionage charges in the United States.
Leahy said the NSA's data-collection programs are being run under Section 215 of the USA Patriot Act, and Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). His FISA Accountability and Privacy Protection Act would make changes to both of those laws.
First, he said it would shorten the sunset provisions of FISA from December 2017 to June 2105, which he said would give Congress a more immediate opportunity to debate ways to limit the scope of the law.
"Nothing focuses oversight like knowing that a law is about to come to an end," he said.
It would sunset the authority of the government to issue National Security Letters (NSLs) until June 2015 — these letters are used to compel the transfer of information to the government. The government would have to seek a court order to keep the NSLs secret, and would have to expand public reporting on the use of NSLs.
Leahy said that new sunset period would align with the sunset of many Patriot Act provisions, which would let Congress assess all of these intelligence-gathering activities in context together.
The bill would also change the Patriot Act to require the government to show that the records it wants are relevant to an authorized investigation, and that there is a link between the records and a foreign agent.
And, it would remove the one-year waiting period that companies or other recipients of requests for information must now endure before challenging a government requirement not to disclose the government's request. Leahy said these requirements are essentially gag orders on Americans, calling them "very, very dangerous."
Finally, the bill would require inspector general audits on the use of Section 215 orders, NSLs and other surveillance authorities.