Groups tell Congress to go big on NSA overhaul

Dozens of privacy, technology and political organizations are calling on Congress to radically overhaul surveillance programs at the National Security Agency (NSA) and other government offices.

As lawmakers spar over President Obama’s proposal to end the NSA’s bulk collection of phone records, the groups called for them to take up broader changes to the country’s spy agencies.

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“Overbroad national security surveillance raises a host of Constitutional, human rights, and practical concerns, and we urge Congress and the Administration to address systemic reform,” the organizations wrote in a letter to top lawmakers, along with Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder.

“The trust of the American people and the global public cannot be regained with legislation that achieves only modest changes to discrete programs.”

The American Civil Liberties Union, online forum reddit and conservative outfit FreedomWorks were among the 42 organizations signing the letter, which went to House and Senate leaders and top lawmakers on the Judiciary and Intelligence committees.

The White House last week called for an end to the contentious NSA program and told Congress to pass a bill putting private phone companies in charge of the information. Federal agents would then be able to search that database with a court order.

Some civil liberties groups have backed the effort but worry that it addresses only one issue, not the full breadth of the NSA’s surveillance. They have pushed for Congress to take up the USA Freedom Act, a bill from Patriot Act author Rep. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.) and Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), which would make more sweeping changes to the country’s surveillance programs.

The bill “would enact appropriate surveillance reforms without sacrificing national security,” the groups said in their letter on Tuesday.

Leahy has not scheduled a markup of his bill in the Judiciary Committee, and analysts have been skeptical that he would have the votes to advance the legislation to the Senate floor. The House version of the bill has also been stalled in committee.