In what has been called "an unlikely alliance of liberal Democrats and libertarian Republicans," a bipartisan group of U.S senators has introduced legislation to end the National Security Agency's bulk collection of Americans' telephone call records and electronic communications. The bill would also create within the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court a "constitutional advocate" to challenge government requests for search warrants.
The activities of the NSA have been the subject of intense and ongoing debate in Washington and around the country since the publication in June of documents made public by contract worker Edward Snowden, describing the PRISM program the agency employs to collect literally billions of communication records every day. Snowden, charged with espionage and theft of government property, fled the country and is now in temporary asylum in Russia.
"The disclosures over the last 100 days have caused a sea change in the way the public views the surveillance system," Sen. Ron Wyden said at a press conference Wednesday announcing the proposed Intelligence Oversight and Surveillance Reform Act. The Oregon Democrat has been warning for at least two years about the extraordinary breadth of searches authorized by the surveillance court and has, along with Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.), twice written letters to Attorney General Eric Holder protesting that the court's interpretation of government surveillance powers under the business records section of the USA PATRIOT Act has gone far beyond the intent of Congress when lawmakers passed the act in September 2001 and reauthorized it a number of times since.
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"We believe most Americans would be stunned to learn the details of how these secret court opinions have interpreted Section 215 of the Patriot Act," the senators wrote in their March 15, 2012 letter to Holder. They sent a similar letter to the attorney general in September 2011.
"There is growing, bipartisan sentiment in Colorado and across the country that the way the NSA and our intelligence agencies are balancing Americans' privacy rights and our security is fundamentally out of whack," Udall said Wednesday. "We need to end the NSA's collection of millions of innocent Americans' private phone records and focus on the real problem: terrorists and spies."