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Coming Up: Congressional Showdown on NSA Wiretapping

Chris Maddaloni/CQ Roll Call File Photo
Leahy and Feinstein are usually allies, but a debate over NSA data collection programs is causing a rift.

“I think the bill that Mr. Rogers and Sen. Feinstein are busy working on is aimed to provide a fig leaf for the intelligence community to do what it wants to continue to do,” Sensenbrenner said. “I think he has plucked the leaf off the fig tree far too soon, and it will be far too small of a fig.”

Sensenbrenner has been writing legislation with Leahy that would, among other things, end the phone record program entirely. It would do so by amending the anti-terrorism law known as the Patriot Act — the law the executive branch used to justify the phone records program, and the law that Sensenbrenner, as the chief House sponsor back in 2001, had spent years defending before becoming upset at what he sees as an executive branch distortion of Congress’ intentions.

Senate Push

A separate coalition of senators —featuring Ron Wyden, D-Ore., Rand Paul, R-Ky., Mark Udall, D-Colo., and Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn. — has already introduced a bill (S 1551) to end the phone record program and plan to offer it as an amendment when the Intelligence Committee marks up its draft legislation. At the Cato forum, Wyden touted his proposal as “real reform” and took aim at what he called the “business as usual” contingent of Congress.

“Their objective is to fog up the surveillance debate and convince the Congress and the public that the real problem here is not overly intrusive, constitutionally flawed domestic surveillance,” he said. “The real problem is all that sensationalistic media. Their end game is ensuring that any surveillance reforms are only skin deep.”

Feinstein rejected the criticism.

“I disagree with these characterizations,” she said in a written statement. “The Intelligence Committee has done extensive reviews of NSA operations and believes they are effective and lawful, but can also be improved. We are including significant restrictions to NSA’s intelligence programs to improve privacy protections and to increase transparency. We believe these are serious reforms that will preserve important intelligence collection and protect Americans’ privacy rights.”

Said Susan Phalen, a spokeswoman for Rogers: “As he promised his colleagues during floor debate in July, Chairman Rogers is committed to making substantive reforms to NSA programs that increase transparency and protect the privacy of American citizens, while keeping operational the programs that target foreign adversaries and foreign terrorists.”

Rogers wants to act on his own bill before the end of the year. The question, though, is how long defenders of the NSA programs can hold off those who want to dismantle or severely curtail them. The July vote to end funding for the phone record program fell short, 205-217. Since then, a number of lawmakers who voted “no” have indicated they’d like a second chance.

Parade of Leaks

Time has often been on the side of lawmakers arguing to preserve controversial national security programs, after the initial furor dies down and the political risk of voting against a potentially life-saving initiative becomes more pronounced. But the revelations about NSA surveillance continue to trickle out, thanks to former intelligence contractor Edward Snowden, keeping constituents in a state of elevated dismay.

Laura Murphy, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Washington, D.C., office, said some things have changed since Congress enacted the Patriot Act.

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