Earlier this week, the Senate Intelligence Committee announced plans to make changes to PRISM, the NSA surveillance program outed by Edward Snowden a few months back. Senators Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Saxby Chambliss (R-GA) are reportedly drafting the bill to present to Congress as early as next week. Senator Feinstein did make it clear that they expected a fair amount of amendments to be proposed once it is presented. Senator Feinstein also stated that the bill’s aim is to increase public confidence in the NSA program that she already believes to be lawful.
The bill can basically be broken down into three changes to the NSA surveillance program. First, the NSA would be required to issue public reports on how often the calling log database is being utilized for surveillance purposes. To me, this suggestion seems like a very transparent attempt to gain public support without actually doing anything. The public already knows that the NSA has these records. We know they’re holding onto them for a reason. I don’t think we gain any real knowledge by knowing how often the databases are accessed. What citizens want to know is if their records are being accessed, but the NSA still won’t be able to tell us who they’re surveilling for obvious reasons. The only thing I can think of is that the government wants to prove to the public that they really aren’t accessing our records very often. But then the question becomes, why are we building massive data storage facilities for information we’ll never use?
The bill’s second goal is, in my opinion, a little more sensible. It would require analysts with access to the records to have “reasonable articulable suspicion” that a phone number was associated with a terrorist organization before accessing records. The only problem is that the NSA has claimed from the beginning that it used this practice and did not arbitrarily search records. It could be that this is just a codification of that practice. Potential contradictions aside though, I’m all for this practice. As much as I personally don’t care if the NSA knows how many times I called my mother last month, I understand why most people don’t want the government snooping on their records. I think that there does need to be some limit to what they can see. I think making the NSA show some level of proof of terrorist ties is probably a good limit so set considering that’s what the program is set up to surveil.
Last but not least, the bill would require appointments to the head of the NSA to be authorized by Congress. This also seems like a logical proposal. I completely agree that appointments to a position with this much power should be decided by more than one or two people. I think we all want to see somebody in charge of the NSA that’s been vetted by Congress if the agency is going to continue collecting massive amounts of records on U.S. citizens, which it is certainly going to do.
Senators Feinstein and Chambliss also used the hearing to denounce disclosures and defend the use of the NSA programs. NSA Director Keith Alexander was called to testify and claimed, “…if we had had [PRISM] prior to 9/11, we would have known about the plot.” Senator Feinstein also seemed to blame the media for spreading skepticism and distrust after the story broke. I can actually see where she’s coming from. It’s no secret that the media likes to blow up stories and make the worst out of everything. I’ve said from the beginning of this saga that there’s no reason for anyone to get their knickers in a twist over the NSA’s programs. But still, that’s a bold strategy by Senator Feinstein. It might be time to pump the brakes and admit that the government could have handled things better as well. I guess this bill is a start.
Chris Whitten, Research Fellow
Center for Policy and Research