Senate Dems to Obama: Don't wait for us on NSA

A trio of Senate Democrats says President Obama should end contested National Security Agency (NSA) operations immediately, without waiting for Congress.

In a letter on Friday, the same day the agency’s legal authority to continue collecting Americans’ phone records comes up for court renewal, Democratic Sens. Mark Udall (Colo.), Ron Wyden (Ore.) and Martin Heinrich (N.M.) said that Obama should use the powers he has now.

“We believe the way to restore Americans’ constitutional rights and their trust in our intelligence community is to immediately end the practice of vacuuming up the phone records of huge numbers of innocent Americans every day and permit the government to obtain only the phone records of people actually connected to terrorism or other nefarious activity,” they wrote.

“More comprehensive congressional action is vital, but the executive branch need not wait for Congress to end the dragnet collection of millions of Americans' phone records for a number of reasons."

On Friday, the Obama administration will likely ask the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to renew the NSA’s bulk collection of phone records for 90 days. The controversial program was revealed by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden last summer and has been the center of debate ever since.

The Senate is currently debating legislation to end that program and require the government get a court order to search records held by phone companies. The bill passed the House last month, but some civil libertarians have feared that it was too watered down before it hit the floor.

The three Democrats shared those concerns on Friday, writing that they were “not confident” that the compromised version of the bill, called the USA Freedom Act, “would actually ban the bulk collection of Americans’ records.”

While lawmakers hammer out an agreement on that measure, the Democrats want Obama to act now.

The three have argued that the Obama administration should offer the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court a more narrow interpretation of the Patriot Act in order to limit some of the searches and rely on a “patchwork of authorities” to continue getting records “on an interim basis” while Congress acts.

In the Senate Intelligence Committee this month, however, a top Justice Department official ruled that out.

Deputy Attorney General James Cole told senators that the administration’s options “come down to what has been approved by the courts over a number of years, new legislation or else not having the tools at all.”

The administration has said that the phone records program has been crucial in helping to track and identify terrorists, but civil liberties advocates have worried that it could violate the Constitution.