Congressional Intel Leaders Want Little Changed Ahead of Obama Speech

Evan Vucci/AP

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House and Senate intelligence committee bosses hope that whatever NSA and other reforms President Obama wants, he can do with executive authority and without legislation. By Stacy Kaper and Michael Catalini

Despite a push from Democratic and Republican lawmakers for new reforms of the intelligence community ahead of President Obama’s highly anticipated speech Friday, Intelligence Committee leaders in both the House and Senate are signaling little interest in such legislation.

Senate Intelligence Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein and ranking member Saxby Chambliss told reporters separately Wednesday that they are not looking for any major legislative initiatives on the National Security Agency from the commander in chief.

Chambliss, a Georgia Republican, flat out said there were no specific legislative reforms he wanted to hear from Obama.

Feinstein, a California Democrat, argued Obama already has power to make the changes he desires. “He can do this, most of it, with his executive authority,” she said.

In the House, the Intelligence Committee last fall had planned to mark up a bill similar to a Senate Intelligence Committee bill that would largely protect the status quo and add additional transparency to national intelligence programs. But the bill was abruptly pulled by Speaker John Boehner, who had been expected to move the legislation directly to the floor.

Much like the Senate, the House has been conflicted on this issue, with Judiciary Committee members such as Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., favoring reforms that would end the NSA’s bulk data collection while Intelligence leaders sought to protect the agency.

(Read more Defense One coverage on the Intelligence Community here)

While the Intelligence Committee leaders on both sides of the Capitol show little indication they will push for sweeping legislative reforms, fissures appear to be widening between the administration and coalitions of progressive and conservative lawmakers over whether and how to reform the intelligence community.

All the NSA overreach has struck a chord with people on the left and right,” said Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., a coauthor of a bill introduced this week that would require intelligence agencies to disclose their top-line spending figure. Cosponsors include conservative Reps. Justin Amash of Michigan, Jim Jordan of Ohio, and Cynthia Lummis of Wyoming.

Getting the legislation to the floor would require backing from the leadership, something lawmakers are not betting on at this stage. Welch said his strategy is to get as many cosponsors as possible. He wouldn’t rule out a discharge petition as a means to leapfrog leadership to get the measure to the floor either.

And in the Senate, Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., has been leading efforts for reform, even teaming up with conservative tea-party leader Mike Lee of Utah on a bill. In another sign of the sometimes odd-couple pairings the issue engenders, Sen. Ted Cruz picked up a line of questioning begun by independent, progressive Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont.

A couple of weeks ago Senator Sanders wrote a letter to the NSA asking if the NSA has ‘spied on or is the NSA currently spying on members of Congress or other elected officials,’ and the NSA’s response to that was that members of Congress have the same privacy protections as all U.S. persons, which certainly suggests the answer to that question was in the affirmative,” Cruz said during questioning at a hearing.

Still, it’s unlikely any reform bill would make it to the floor of the Senate, a senior Democratic aide said.

Both Senate Intelligence leaders laid out a strong defense for protecting the guts of the existing mass-surveillance program, which allows collection of millions of Americans’ phone and Internet records, even when they are under no suspicion of terrorism ties.

We believe—the Intelligence Committee—that the program is legal. I’m hopeful that the program will be sustained by the president—maybe in a slightly different form,” Feinstein said.

Chambliss argued he hopes to hear the president lay out the case for the current system, run through the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.

I’d like for him to say that 215 and 702 are very valuable programs,” he said referring to sections in the law that have been used to justify and allow mass surveillance. “They have contributed to the national security interests of the United States in a very positive way and while we may need to make it a little bit more transparent, that we need to utilize it more and more.”

Feinstein argued—as she had since the issue first made waves with revelations from NSA leaker Edward Snowden last year—that the current open-ended system allows investigators to thwart terrorism plots and needs to be sustained.

Here’s the problem, the problem is to keep the instantaneous nature of the program,” she said. “Because you don’t know at what point in plot-planning you learn of the plot. And the whole point of this program is to prevent something from happening.”

She argued that ideas for narrowing the surveillance to suspected targets misses the point and used the Boston Marathon bombing as an example.

As with Boston, emergency powers were used, following Boston, to get telephony information. But that was after the fact,” she said. “These programs are all designed to prevent it from happening, to disrupt the plot, to get to them before they do it, and to be able to make a case to arrest them and to make a case against them. Now ideally that means getting to the plot early on, so that you can begin to develop the evidence so people will be convicted or plead guilty.”

The bill passed by the Senate Intelligence Committee last year would protect the status quo, but add additional transparency and accountability measures to respond to critics.

Feinstein argued Obama could embrace the bill’s authorization for the FISA Court to designate an outside amicus curiae or “friends of the court” to assist in interpretations of the law and further tinker around the edges to put subtle limits on the information collected.

The amicus is part of our FISA bill, so it will be interesting to see if the president does something there,” she said. “My own view is there are things that could be done. We put together a bipartisan bill.… But the president could certainly … shorten the time the material is held, I think without material harm to the program.”

Feinstein added that Obama could also “shorten the hops” or limit the degrees of separation between a phone number suspected to be related to terrorism and the web of interconnected phone numbers that are queried.

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