Judiciary chairman takes aim at NSA

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) said Tuesday he would aggressively push legislation to limit the power of the National Security Agency.

"I am convinced that the system set up in the 1970s to regulate the surveillance capabilities of our intelligence community is no longer working," Leahy said in a speech at Georgetown University Law Center. "We have to recalibrate."

The powerful Democrat announced that he is working with Rep. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.), the original author of the Patriot Act, and Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) on legislation to overhaul the surveillance system. Leahy has already introduced a bill to limit the NSA's bulk collection of domestic phone data.

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"In my view — and I've discussed this with the White House — the Section 215 bulk collection of Americans’ phone records must end," Leahy said, referring to a provision of the Patriot Act. "The government has not made its case that this is an effective counterterrorism tool, especially in light of the intrusion on Americans’ privacy rights."

Leahy also called for strengthening oversight of the NSA. He said he disagrees with people who believe the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) is an "unthinking rubber stamp" for the NSA, but he argued that the court has been making broad policy decisions that Congress never envisioned. He also questioned how the court could conduct proper oversight if it is misled by NSA officials. 

"When senior officials at the NSA do not themselves understand the technical boundaries of the programs they manage, or when they give inaccurate explanations to the court — and they have — how do we expect the court to fulfill its role? It can't be done," Leahy said. 

He said Congress should consider making "structural changes" to the court and strengthening the ability of inspectors general to conduct oversight. He also referred to the "benefits of an adversarial process" in which an attorney would rebut the government's claims before the court. 

Leahy said he does not condone the leaks by Edward Snowden, which he said have damaged national security. But he said Congress should examine whether the government is keeping too much information secret about the scope of its surveillance programs.

"We must find a way to discuss publicly the outer bounds of government authority to surveil Americans," he said. "Congress was able to do that in the 1970s when it developed FISA [Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act], and I am confident we can do it again."

The Judiciary Committee will hold a classified hearing Wednesday on the intelligence programs and a public hearing next week, Leahy said. 

The Senate Intelligence Committee announced it would hold its own public hearing Thursday afternoon to examine the surveillance programs. 

Leahy's remarks, along with the comments of other senior lawmakers, such as House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), indicate that Congress is serious about reining in the NSA following this summer's revelations. Despite opposition from both parties' leaders and the White House, the House came within seven votes of defunding the phone data collection program in July. 

Following Leahy's speech, former Democratic Sens. Walter Mondale (Minn.) and Gary Hart (Colo.), members of the Church Committee, which overhauled the government's surveillance system in the 1970s, accused the intelligence agencies of breaking the law. 

— Updated at 12:24 p.m.

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