Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin said Thursday he has tried for years to eliminate what he saw as the National Security Agency's overreach in collecting data, but hasn't been able to say much about the classified program.
"I've tried to be careful in how I expressed that concern because we're dealing with classified information. I've come to the floor, gone to the Senate Judiciary Committee, offered amendments. I've tried to be as careful there in my language as I could be," Durbin said.
In fact, at a 2009 markup of a Patriot Act reauthorization, Durbin prophesied that a day like this one would arrive.
"The real reason for resisting this obvious common-sense modification of Section 215 is cloaked in secrecy. Someday the cloak will be lifted and future generations will ask whether our actions today meet the test of a democratic society — transparency, accountability and fidelity to the rule of law and our Constitution," he said on Oct. 1, 2009. "I believe our oath of office requires every member of this Committee to seek a classified briefing to truly understand this issue."
Wednesday night's disclosure by The Guardian newspaper that the NSA is collecting Verizon phone records pursuant to a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court order was the No. 1 topic of discussion Thursday, even though multiple senators said the underlying program is seven years old and not a big deal.
"I've offered several [proposals] over the years, and I'm prepared to offer them again," Durbin said. "I think there are ways to make this more specific so that any data collected is specific to a suggestion that an individual is ... engaged in conduct that endangers America."
Durbin said that it ultimately comes down to whether the current net is too wide.
"Whether we collect everything and then look for the specific offenders or we zero in on information that relates to those who've offended," Durbin said. "Some of it is technical, but some of it's pretty basic in principle."
When a reporter asked Durbin at a Thursday news conference whether he had been specifically briefed on the program reported in the Guardian, Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., muttered "better be careful here" and Durbin declined to respond.
"This is a program that's been in effect for seven years, as I recall. It's a program ... that's worked to prevent, not all terrorism, but certainly the vast, vast majority. Now, is the program perfect? Of course not," Reid said. "I think that what we should do is make sure that Sen. Feinstein has an opportunity to review what has gone on."
Senate Intelligence Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Vice Chairman Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., told reporters that they were well aware of the NSA's activities and said information had been made available to any senators interested in the classified program.
During a gaggle with reporters, we asked Durbin if he intended to take any action related to this NSA program through his new role as chairman of the Defense Appropriations subcommittee, which has jurisdiction over intelligence spending.
"Most people don't even know that, but it's true," Durbin said. "We've worked historically — I'm new to this assignment, but historically the Intelligence Committee, the authorizing committee, has really made the policy decisions. I get briefed on things I never dreamed I'd be briefed on in this new assignment, but I really defer to them."
Durbin noted that he previously served on the Intelligence panel.
"They spent countless hours in a closed room just listening to all of the details, so I defer to Sen. Feinstein. We're in conversation over this and other issues," Durbin said.
CQ Roll Call's John Gramlich contributed to this report.