By Mike Lillis - 08/22/13 04:12 PM EDT
Several top House Democrats are demanding the government's spying powers be immediately curtailed in the wake of revelations the National Security Agency had improperly collected tens of thousands of emails from American citizens.
The lawmakers, all senior members of the House Judiciary Committee, are urging Congress to take quick steps to make the spying programs more transparent for the sake of protecting constitutionally guaranteed freedoms.
"These revelations, and others over the past weeks, demand that we act immediately," the Democrats said in a statement.
“Although we have repeatedly been assured that the government’s surveillance programs are subject to robust internal and external oversight, the burden remains on the House and Senate Judiciary Committees to ensure that government acts in a manner that is consistent with our civil liberties."
The lawmakers want Congress to take up legislation reining in the administration's spying powers under the contentious Section 215 of the Patriot Act; requiring the White House to provide Congress with more information about the decisions passed down by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which oversees NSA surveillance; creating a public advocate for the court; and reforming the system for selecting judges for the intelligence court.
The NSA has been under a bright light since June, when Edward Snowden, a former CIA contractor, leaked information revealing that the agency has swept up billions of communications from American citizens.
The scrutiny intensified on Wednesday, when intelligence officials revealed that the NSA went beyond its authority, collecting as many as 56,000 emails from Americans with no terrorist ties. The episode led a surveillance court judge to reprimand the agency in 2011, when the court first learned of the surveillance, and the Obama administration says all such data gathering ended at that time.
"This is not an egregious overreaching by a greedy agency seeking to spy on Americans," a senior intelligence official told reporters Wednesday on a conference call. "This is a technological problem that resulted in an inadvertent collection of a relatively small number of U.S. person communications."
Lead by Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), the House Judiciary Committee held a hearing on NSA surveillance in July, and the panel is expected to host a classified hearing on the same topic when Congress returns to Washington in September.
"These hearings are good first step in our work to curb these abuses with all deliberate speed," said Conyers, Nadler and Scott.