By Jeremy Herb, Jennifer Martinez and Brendan Sasso - 08/10/13 10:00 AM EDT
President Obama’s call for Congress to reform National Security Agency laws is already sparking a pitched battle between lawmakers who are defenders of the NSA’s surveillance activities and critics who say the government is abusing civil liberties.
Several Republican lawmakers on Friday said Obama was wrong to call for changes to programs that are working, and Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said the president should have done a better job in explaining the existing programs.
Yet the divisions over the NSA programs could make the legislative battle particularly complicated.
Obama's comments came just weeks after the House nearly approved bipartisan legislation uniting liberal Democrats and Tea Party Republicans that would have curtailed some of the NSA's powers. The legislation sponsored by Reps. Justin Amash (R-Mich.) and John Conyers (D-Mich.) fell seven votes short.
Obama announced at a news conference Friday that he wanted Congress to reform Section 215 of the Patriot Act, which allows the National Security Agency to collect phone records. He also wanted to create a role for civil libertarians in the secret courts that approve the government’s data requests.
“Given the scale of this program, I understand the concerns of those who worry that it could lead to abuse," Obama said. “I believe that there are steps we can take to give the American people additional confidence that there are additional safeguards against abuse.”
Obama's push may also put the telecommunications industry on guard against any proposals that may require them to retain phone data for longer periods of time than they already do or follow other mandates.
For example, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), a member of the House Intelligence Committee, has encouraged the National Security Agency to restructure its phone data collection program so telephone companies store American’s call records rather than the spy agency. That proposal would likely spark concerns from phone companies about how much this change would cost, as well as protests from privacy and civil liberties groups that oppose data retention mandates.
Obama’s push to change the law on Friday followed bipartisan outrage over the scope of the NSA’s surveillance activities, which were revealed in June when former NSA contractor Edward Snowden leaked top-secret documents.
Last month’s House battle over the Amash-Conyers bill encouraged NSA critics despite the defeat, and they said they would once again pursue additional measures after the August recess.
Obama’s announcement may be seen as an attempt to beat them to the punch, and encourage tweaks rather than structural changes like preventing the NSA from using Section 215 to collect mass phone data, as Amash’s amendment would have done.
Feinstein said her hearings would “undertake a major review of all intelligence data-collection programs involving Americans.”
“As I have said before, if changes are necessary, whenever feasible, we will make them,” Feinstein said in a statement. “To the extent possible, I hope these hearings will better delineate the purpose and scope of these programs and increase the public’s confidence in their effectiveness.”
Some Republicans signaled opposition to any change, and accused the president of failing to properly defend the significance and lawfulness of the programs when they were first revealed.
“Much of any public concern about this critical program can be attributed to the president’s reluctance to sufficiently explain and defend it,” said Brendan Buck, spokesman for Boehner, who cast a rare vote against Amash’s amendment last month.
“Transparency is important, but we expect the White House to insist that no reform will compromise the operational integrity of the program,” Buck said. “That must be the president’s red line, and he must enforce it. Our priority should continue to be saving American lives, not saving face.”
Rep. Pete King (R-N.Y.) said Obama’s call for reforms was a “monumental failure in presidential wartime leadership and responsibility.”
“These programs are legal, transparent and contain the appropriate checks and balances among the executive, legislative and judicial branches of our government,” King said in a statement. “These intelligence tools keep Americans safe every single day.”
Some NSA critics were encouraged by Obama’s announcement.
“I am glad that the president acknowledged my concerns today — and those of millions of Americans — by promising to work with Congress to change the status quo," said Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.), a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee. "This is an important first step — but I will keep fighting to ensure it's not the administration's last in this direction.”
Udall introduced a bill with Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) that would end the bulk collection of phone records.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said he was “tremendously pleased” that the president voiced support for appointing a special advocate to the FISA court that would push for privacy rights. In the current process, the secretive court only reviews arguments from the government in favor of the surveillance programs.
Blumenthal unveiled a bill last week that would create an office for such an advocate.
“His support for this commonsense concept should give this cause compelling momentum,” Blumenthal said in a statement.
While Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) said he welcomed Obama’s “acknowledgement that greater transparency is needed in the ongoing debate” over the programs, he vowed to continue pressing for the release of FISA court opinions about the phone data collection program.
“If we are going to have the debate that the President has called for, then the executive branch must be a full partner,” Leahy said in a statement. “I will carefully examine the materials released today and will continue to press for greater transparency, including the release of significant FISA Court opinions about the Section 215 program.”
Leahy, a skeptic of the surveillance programs, is pushing a bill that would limit Section 215 to only allow the collection of records if they can be linked to a terrorist group or foreign power.
Amash, however, questioned Obama’s proposals. On Twitter, the Michigan Republican attempted to poke holes at Obama’s claims during the press conference and said Congress is determined to reform the programs.
"Pres Obama's claim that he was planning to reform these surveillance programs prior to the leaks is laughable," Amash tweeted. "I hope Pres Obama is serious [about] surveillance reform. Regardless, Americans demand it & dozens of colleagues on both sides will push ahead."
While privacy and civil liberties groups said they were encouraged by the president’s acknowledgement that the phone data collection program needs more transparency, they argued that the government shouldn’t be sweeping up Americans’ phone records in the first place.
Michelle Richardson, a legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, said she's glad the president is "paying attention" to the issue but was discouraged by his focus on rebuilding public confidence.
"This isn't just about addressing people's fears. It's not just a misconception. It's about actually restricting the collection of Americans' information," she said.
Richardson applauded the president's proposal to create a chief privacy officer within the NSA and to have a civil liberties advocate rebut the government's arguments before the FISA court.
But she said those steps are "not a substitute for stopping the bulk collection of Americans' phone records."
Amie Stepanovich, director of the domestic surveillance project at the Electronic Privacy Information Center, noted that the phone data collection program isn’t the only one that the president needs to improve. Other NSA surveillance programs that have recently come to light from Snowden’s leaks raise significant privacy concerns and need additional safeguards, she said.
“It’s very important to note that there are other programs that need to be addressed,” Stepanovich said. “There’s no total solution on the table.”