Obama's NSA Panel Testifies Before Senate Committee

Jan 14, 2014
Originally published on January 14, 2014 5:33 pm
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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Audie Cornish.

The debate about whether to rein in U.S. surveillance practices played out on Capitol Hill today, as five members of a presidential review panel testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Here's Chairman Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat.

SENATOR PATRICK LEAHY: When you think about it, we're really having a debate about what are Americans' fundamental relationship with their own government. The government exists for Americans, not the other way around.

CORNISH: The review panel has made dozens of recommendations, including requiring judicial approval for searches of U.S. bulk phone records. But its ideas are meeting some resistance. NPR's Carrie Johnson joins us now. And, Carrie, this review panel, lots of different perspectives: a former deputy CIA director, a terrorism expert and law professors. What did they manage to agree on?

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: So the review panel made a little joke today here in Washington. They said there was no dissent and no horse trading among the members, very unusual on Capitol Hill. Several key recommendations. First, they wanted to require a particularized search of U.S. phone metadata and to have a judge approve that before the NSA analyst go in and search on their own. They also wanted the FBI to get a judge's blessing before issuing a so-called national security letter.

These are letters that allow the FBI to get financial, credit card information and subscriber data. The FBI got 20,000 of them last year. The panel also wanted to name a public advocate to argue the public's case for privacy in front of the secret FISA court. And it wanted to shake up the process of naming judges to that secret court. Right now, Chief Justice John Roberts is responsible for naming all of those judges.

CORNISH: And there's been some pushback against that recommendation, not just from members of the intelligence committees and the NSA but also from judges.

JOHNSON: Yes, Audie. And the surprise of the day, Judge John Bates, who had been the chief judge of this secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, released a letter in which he rejected many of the group's findings. The letter, which is based on interviews and conversations he had with other judges on that secret court, says that the court does not believe there should be a regular public advocate arguing in front of it, except when those judges ask for one.

They also said that more transparency about court rulings would be confusing for most Americans and would promote misunderstanding. But judges themselves say they don't want to be responsible for signing off on those national security letters, that they'd need lots more resources to do it, and they think it would damage the work they already do. And finally, the court said it doesn't see itself as playing or portraying an oversight role over the NSA.

CORNISH: And any hints about where the White House is going to come down on this? President Obama is set to make a speech about surveillance programs Friday at the Justice Department.

JOHNSON: So the president, a former constitutional professor, was wary of surveillance as a senator. Right now, it's hard to see the White House either accepting or rejecting all 46 of this review group's recommendations. So instead, there are going to be some changes at the margins. And he's certainly listening, as we've heard, to members of the intelligence community. In order to make some substantial changes, though, Audie, Congress may be forced to act.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Carrie Johnson. Carrie, thank you.

JOHNSON: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.