Senators repackage surveillance bills as comprehensive reform

Four Senators who had been working separately to reform U.S. surveillance programs announced Thursday that they are introducing a comprehensive reform bill.

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The reform package is “the most comprehensive, bipartisan intelligence reform proposal since the disclosures” earlier this year, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) said of the reform package being introduced by himself and Sens. Mark Udall (D-Colo.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and Rand Paul (R-Ky.).

The bill will combine elements of legislation that had been pushed by the four lawmakers.

It would ban the bulk collections of electronic communications and telephone data, require the intelligence community to get a search warrant before searching for the communications of innocent Americans, reform the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) to include a constitutional advocate, allow people to challenge the constitutionality of surveillance programs in open court and bring more transparency to the surveillance programs.

“These are common sense reforms” that protects Americans’ privacy without sacrificing the intelligence community’s ability to protect against national security threats, Udall said.

Constitutional challenges to surveillance programs can be debated in an open court without sacrificing national security, Paul, who introduced legislation that would require a warrant for access to Americans' communciations, said. Names can be redacted from documents, but the constitutionality of surveillance is “something we can debate out in the open,” he said.

Udall was critical of NSA defenders who say the surveillance programs – especially the program involving the bulk collection of telephony metadata – have been critical in detecting and preventing threats.

There has been an inaccurate “conflating of 702 and 215,” he said referring to the telephone and electronic communications surveillance programs.

The bulk collection of telephony metadata under Section 215 of the USA PATRIOT Act has “not provided unique value” in stopping threats, he said. The oft-quoted figure that the data has led to the prevention of 54 threats “does not stand up to scrutiny.”

The lawmakers said they are optimistic the reform measures will move. “I believe we have exceptional momentum right now,” Wyden said.

President Barack Obama has already “virtually endorsed” the idea of a person to argue for constitutional principles at FISC, Blumenthal – whose FISC reform bill comprises a large part of the comprehensive package – said.

By introducing the bill, the Senators are hoping to shape the debate. As the Senate Intelligence and Judiciary Committees are slated to examine surveillance programs, “we’re launching the debate with an actual bill” to set the bar high on surveillance reform, Wyden said.