A bipartisan group of lawmakers led by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) is attempting to rein in controversial provisions that have given US intelligence agencies broad authority to conduct warrantless surveillance on both foreign and domestic communications. The FISA Accountability and Privacy Protection Act of 2013 is designed to put a shorter expiration date on major expansions to the USA Patriot Act and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which are being secretly interpreted to justify the mass-collection of phone metadata and internet content, respectively. The bill would also shorten the lifespan of the law which allows National Security Letters, which have already been ruled unconstitutional by a federal judge, as well as increase oversight and transparency by adding new reporting requirements.
The bill is modeled after similar proposals led by Leahy in previous years. Last December, he sponsored a modest amendment that would have shortened the time before the FISA Amendments Act expired. But the proposal, along with all other modifications, was shot down on the Senate floor, allowing the NSA to continue its foreign and domestic surveillance programs until 2017. Leahy's bill would reduce that timeframe, allowing the laws to be reevaluated on July 1st, 2015.
"Government surveillance powers deserve close scrutiny by Congress.”
In a statement, Leahy urged that the government's surveillance powers "deserve close scrutiny by Congress," saying the legislation "will not only improve the privacy protections and accountability provisions associated with these authorities, but also strengthen oversight and transparency provisions in other parts of the USA PATRIOT Act." Leahy is also backing another bill led by Sen. Jeff Merkley which would declassify the secret court opinions that permit the NSA's data sweeps.
The renewed push comes as NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, who is now seeking political asylum, continues to share details about the warrantless electronic surveillance programs being run by the NSA and its British ally, GCHQ. Defenders claim the programs have helped foil a significant number of terrorist plots, and President Obama has urged that the data collection "does not apply to US citizens." However, documents unveiled last week showing the internal guidelines for the NSA's targeted surveillance revealed that while analysts must take steps to ensure wholly domestic communications are not caught in their nets, a broad set of exceptions allows the agency to store Americans' communications for up to five years, even if they are not relevant to national security.