The Senate Intelligence Committee quietly invited the White House-appointed National Security Agency task force to a closed briefing Tuesday afternoon to discuss proposed changes to the agency’s programs. But despite what lawmakers said was a productive discussion, committee members remain sharply divided over possible revisions.
“There is a spirited conversation in there in regards to the president’s panel’s recommendations,” said Colorado Democrat Mark Udall, a critic of the NSA’s collection of Americans' cellphone metadata. “There’s still a broad range of viewpoints. We have momentum. And I don’t say that in a gloating fashion, I respect everyone on the committee.”
The president’s panel, which included several former intelligence officials such as the former deputy director of the Central Intelligence Agency, was created to examine the NSA’s programs in the aftermath of former defense contractor Edward Snowden’s leaks. The panel submitted its 304-page report to President Barack Obama before Christmas. The surprisingly critical report made 43 recommendations for ways to revise the program, including no longer allowing the NSA to collect cellphone metadata. Instead, that data would remain in private hands and could be searched only when a court issues a warrant.
Those recommendations were criticized by supporters of the NSA’s programs, including Intelligence Committee Chair Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who has said that taking the information out of the government’s hands could put the country at risk. Feinstein has spoken out against proposed changes that would require as much, and has sponsored her own committee bill that would preserve the agency’s methods.
“Our bill passed by 11-4, so you know there’s substantial support for the programs,” she said.
Committee member James Risch, R-Idaho, echoed that sentiment leaving Tuesday’s briefing.
“There’s a lot of different recommendations there,” he said of the panel’s report. “Some of them, people agree with, some of them people don’t agree with, and that’s mixed within the committee also.”
When asked if the NSA would ultimately retain the ability to hold on to its dragnets, Risch said he believed it would.
“In some fashion, and for some period of time, the answer to that question would be yes,” he said.
Those thoughts starkly contrasted with those of NSA critics Udall and Ron Wyden, D-Ore., both of whom have said their calls for substantial overhauls have gained traction in recent months.
“I know that if you compare where reformers are today to where we were seven, eight months ago, we made an enormous amount of headway,” said Wyden. “And I think in the days ahead, the Congress is going to respond to the people of this country who want to make sure that no longer is there a policy that says security and liberty are somehow mutually exclusive. They aren’t. You can have both.”
But between Udall and Wyden’s criticisms and Feinstein’s staunch defense, committee rookie Angus King, I-Maine, said that months of discussions had left some panel members more open to compromise. King himself is sponsoring an amendment to Feinstein’s bill that would require Congress to be notified every time the NSA’s databases are queried.
“That’s a compromise between those who say leave it alone, leave it as is and those who say let’s move all the data into a third party or leave it with the phone companies,” King said. “My concern was I didn’t want one branch of the government to have unfettered access to this data because of the potential for abuse.”
Several committee members will meet with President Obama at the White House on Thursday to discuss potential changes to the agency’s programs. The president has said he is carefully weighing the board’s findings, as King said the committee would continue to do.
“They made 40 some recommendations, and we’re going to be talking through a significant number of them,” King said. “It was a very helpful meeting, I think. Very open discussion of how do we balance national security and privacy. That’s the issue.”