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Senate Intelligence Chairman Blasts House's NSA Surveillance Overhaul

Burr dismissed the House-passed USA Freedom Act intended to overhaul the NSA's surveillance programs. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

The chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee says the bill passed overwhelmingly Wednesday by the House  overhauling National Security Agency surveillance is no better than letting the Patriot Act provisions expire at the end of the month.  

"Yogi Berra said I never make predictions, especially about the future," Sen. Richard M. Burr quipped Wednesday when asked about what would happen when the Senate takes up a reauthorization of  surveillance powers, likely next week.  

But he reiterated that the base bill on the Senate floor will be a clean extension of existing authorities, not the bipartisan compromise known as the USA Freedom Act that passed the House with 338 yes votes and lines up with a Senate proposal spearheaded by Sens. Mike Lee, R-Utah, and Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt.  

"I think it's clear to say that the program as designed is effective, and members are reluctant to change things that are effective just because of public opinion," Burr said. "We've got a program that has never had one breach of personal privacy, and there's really no compelling reason to change the structure of the program other than that the public is uncomfortable with it."  

"I see the Leahy bill and expiration being one and the same because when you do away with bulk storage ... you basically have an unworkable system in real time, and part of this program's design is that it works in real time or ahead of a threat. We don't want to be behind a threat or it's a criminal investigation," Burr said, suggesting his version of a compromise would be a shorter-term extension than the five-and-a-half years proposed by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., with the backing of Burr.  

In a statement issued just after House passage, Leahy emphasized that he has already compromised in the process of agreeing to the current legislation.  

"I would prefer more reforms as anyone can see from previous versions of the bill that I have introduced. Other Senators would prefer more dragnet surveillance. The USA FREEDOM Act achieves the important goal of ending the NSA’s bulk collection program while ensuring the intelligence community’s capabilities," Leahy said. "Senate Republicans have an opportunity to avoid brinkmanship on this important national security issue."  

The House-passed bill has the administration's support, as reiterated in a joint letter sent earlier this week to Lee and Leahy by Attorney General Loretta Lynch and Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper.  

"We believe that it is a reasonable compromise that preserves vital national security authorities, enhances privacy and civil liberties and codifies requirements for increased transparency," Lynch and Clapper wrote. "The Intelligence Community believes this bill preserves the essential operational capabilities of the telephone metadata program and enhances other intelligence capabilities needed to protect our nation and its partners. In the absence of legislation, important intelligence authorities will expire on June 1."  

Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker, who does not serve on the Intelligence Committee, told reporters Wednesday morning he came away from a closed security briefing Tuesday with real doubts about whether the NSA was collecting enough data, not too much.  

"It's almost malpractice. Malpractice is the best word that I can use to describe the amount of data that is actually being collected in the metadata program. I think it’s shocking to know this. The program is actually not the program that I thought it was, not even close," Corker said at a Christian Science Monitor Breakfast. "I think that what you may see happening over the course of the next few days is multiple inquiries, on both sides of the aisle."  

Corker said Americans should not be concerned about privacy risks, but rather the operations of the collecting of telephone metadata.  

"What they should be concerned about is the lack of focus on the program, the lack of, it's not prolific in any way and I am incredibly disappointed that we've allowed a program that is something that is supposed to be so important to our national security to be so ineptly carried out," Corker said. "The amount of data collected is so minimal that you’d almost think you wouldn't have a program like it."  

Asked about Corker's comments, Burr said that there was no reason for concern about the current law that's scheduled to expire constricting the NSA's ability to collect data.  

"If the program has any limitations, that's imposed by the administration, not by the law," Burr said. "They have full authority to collect as much data as is available."  

Rachel Oswald contributed to this report. The 114th: CQ Roll Call's Guide to the New Congress Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call in your inbox or on your iPhone.

Topics: intelligence intl