Terror threat opens new front in NSA fight

A weekend terror threat that had top administration officials huddling
at the White House
, and provoked the State Department to close
more than 20 diplomatic posts and issue a worldwide travel alert, has
opened up a new front in the debate over the National Security
Agency’s (NSA) surveillance programs. 

{mosads}A handful of lawmakers – most of them long-time national security
hawks — took to the Sunday news shows to declare the NSA programs
a success, and credit the controversial surveillance methods, first uncovered when former contractor Edward Snowden divulged details to The Guardian, as directly responsible for uncovering a potential terrorist attack.

“These programs are controversial, we understand that,” Sen. Saxby
Chambliss (R-Ga.) said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “But they are also
very important… If we did not have these programs, then we simply
would not be able to listen in on the bad guys.”

And Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) argued on CNN’s “State of the Union”
that by shedding light on the weekend terror threat, that “the NSA
program is proving its worth yet again.”

“To the members of Congress who want to reform the NSA program,
great,” he said. “If you want to gut it, you make us much less safe,
and you’re putting our nation at risk. We need to have policies in
place that can deal with the threats that exist, and they are real,
and they are growing.”

But not all lawmakers agreed that the surveillance was responsible for
exposing a terrorist attack, and many, led by Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.)
and other Libertarian-minded members of Congress, likely will continue to
warn that the programs are a government intrusion on civil liberties
and don’t make the country any safer.

“There’s no indication, unless I’m proved wrong later, that that
program which collects vast amounts of … domestic telephone data
contributed to information about this particular plot,” Rep. Adam
Schiff (R-Calif.), a senior member of the House Intelligence
Committee, said on CNN’s “State of the Union.”

The sparring came just hours before a CNN report appeared to
contradict Schiff. CNN said it learned that U.S. officials intercepted
a message from senior al Qaeda operatives in recent days that
indicated an attack was imminent and was the impetus for the State
Department’s precautionary measures.

But whether the NSA programs were directly responsible for preventing
a weekend attack, new fissures emerged among supporters of the
surveillance programs, who admitted that the programs could benefit
from a review and potential overhaul.

Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said he and Chambliss attended a meeting with President Obama and about eight other members of Congress from both parties and chambers to discuss the merits and effectiveness
of the programs.

“Do we need to collect all of the phone records of all of the people
living in America for five years so that if we’re going to target one
particular person, we’re ready to jump on it?” he asked on NBC’s “Meet
the Press.” “That is being discussed and debated. The president is open
to suggestions to make this stronger and more responsive and

Durbin said there were two areas where the programs should be reviewed.

“First is how much do you need to collect, who should hold this, does
the government need all this information on everybody in this
country?” he asked. “That’s the first preliminary question that we’re
going to address. The second is the FISA court, this court we know
very little about, it isn’t public, how much authority should it have,
what checks should be in place to make sure that there is at least an
adversarial proceeding there when it comes to the issue of privacy and

“I think that we’re open to changes in both,” he added. “The president
is committed to the safety of this country. But let’s do everything we
can to protect the privacy of innocent Americans.”

In addition to potential changes to the programs, some members of
Congress say they’re being stonewalled in attempts to learn more about
the programs.

The Guardian newspaper on Sunday published a story that said members
of Congress were being blocked from obtaining all the information they
sought on the programs.

“Two House members, GOP Rep. Morgan Griffith of Virginia and
Democratic Rep. Alan Grayson of Florida, have provided the Guardian
with numerous letters and emails documenting their persistent, and
unsuccessful, efforts to learn about NSA programs and relevant FISA
court rulings,” Glenn Greenwald, the reporter-activist who has been
breaking the NSA stories, wrote. “ ‘If I can’t get basic information
about these programs, then I’m not able to do my job,’ Rep. Griffith
told me.”

Chambliss disputed this notion.

“Well, if they are, it’s their own fault because all they have to do is
ask,” he shot back. “And we make available within the confines of the
intelligence community where, it’s what we call a skip, where
classified information can be reviewed. All members of Congress have
the ability to come in and review most of the documents that are
involved in these programs.”

Tags Alan Grayson Dick Durbin Lindsey Graham Morgan Griffith Rand Paul

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