Intel panel senators attack NSA reform bill

Intelligence Committee senators warned their colleagues not to push legislation to end controversial spying programs at the National Security Agency.

In a hearing on Thursday, multiple Republican and Democratic lawmakers on the Senate panel said that a reform bill passed by the House last month could prevent intelligence analysts from doing their jobs and may hurt national security.

“It seems to me that this bill is fixing a lot of things that simply aren’t broken,” said Sen. Saxby Chambliss (Ga.) the panel’s top Republican.

“My phone data is in [the NSA's database] with everybody else’s, but frankly I’m not worried, and I’m not worried because I don’t talk to terrorists, and hopefully I don’t talk to other people who talk to terrorists,” he said.

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The House-passed USA Freedom Act would effectively end the NSA’s bulk collection of records about phone calls made in the U.S. That data would instead be kept by private phone companies, and spy agency officials could search the records with a court order.

That new, untested legal process created by the bill, Chambliss said, could make things too complicated for the NSA and “may be a pretty bad deal from a national security perspective and for the American people.”

When the bill made its way through the House, it received unanimous support from both the Judiciary and Intelligence committees, which have often been at odds over surveillance. That result seemed unlikely in the Senate on Thursday, however.

Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), the chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, said that he has dealt repeatedly with phone companies and did not trust them to go along with the plan without protest.

“It seems to me that we’re doing something unnecessary and unpredictable here, which might make the public feel better but which would not be good for national security, which is what our job is,” he said.

The Intelligence Committee hearing came a year to the day after the first published report about NSA surveillance based on leaks from former contractor Edward Snowden.

Outrage over the operations spurred calls for reform in both chambers of Congress and from President Obama, but Sen. Dan Coats (R-Ind.) warned the upper chamber not to “overreach” on a reform bill.

“We should not play to the siren song of a political response,” he said.

Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) has been supportive of the NSA’s operations, but nonetheless called for reform on Thursday.

“I happen to believe it is lawful and it has been effective, but I recognize that the situation is such that change is needed,” she said.

“I believe we should take a close look at the House legislation with a view to its passage, perhaps as amended, in the Senate.”

Despite some lawmakers’ reluctance to support the bill, the Obama administration has embraced it and said it would not compromise the intelligence agency’s ability to defend the country.

Deputy Attorney General James Cole called for the Senate panel to give it “serious consideration as soon as possible.”

Privacy advocates and tech companies had originally heralded the USA Freedom Act as a way to end the NSA’s most controversial operations, but many of them dropped support in the days and weeks ahead of the floor vote.

Reformers claimed that the most important aspects of the bill had been watered down to please the Obama administration and hawks sympathetic to the intelligence community. The new version could allow agents to search for vast amounts of data, they feared, such as everyone in a particular zip code.

Cole said that was not true, but Feinstein nonetheless called the legal language “confusing."

“I am interested in trying to find a clearer and more understandable definition and make clear that it prohibits bulk collection of information under these authorities," she said.