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Politics & Government

Calls Grow For Overhaul Of Government Surveillance Programs


Let's turn now to Congress and the way some lawmakers want to rein in government surveillance programs. There was a vote last week, it was defeated. Despite that, critics of the surveillance program say they plan to keep trying. Some proposals call for minor tweaks, others go much further and could lead to major reforms of the secret surveillance court.

NPR's Larry Abrahamson looks at what might be ahead.

LARRY ABRAMSON, BYLINE: Last week, the House narrowly defeated a proposal that would simply shut down the collection of data about telephone traffic by the National Security Agency. The vote was close and that's created hope that less ambitious approaches might succeed. One idea is to have the telephone companies hold on to the information rather than letting the government collect years of calling data.

NSA chief General Keith Alexander says his agency already suggested that.

GENERAL KEITH ALEXANDER: We talked to the phone companies in 2009 and they said, okay, we prefer not to do that.

ABRAMSON: Speaking at a recent forum on the surveillance controversy, Alexander said if the companies were willing to store that information, he'd be open to that idea.

ALEXANDER: I think it's something that we should consider. I'm not against it.

ABRAMSON: The companies would have to give the government quick access to years of phone information. That's how much the NSA is currently storing in its own databases. But some doubt the companies can be trusted any more than the government. Jennifer Granick of Stanford University points out this is the industry that helped the Bush administration eavesdrop without court oversight just a few years ago.

JENNIFER GRANICK: I don't think that the companies are in the position to well safeguard our privacy and Fourth Amendment rights.

ABRAMSON: Granick is a leader of efforts to make more fundamental reforms by reshaping the role of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. That's the body that has been approving the wholesale collection of telephone records. Granick says the court was originally designed to approve individual orders, to wiretap a specific terror suspect, for example. Now, she says, the court's role has been expanded to approving collection of information in bulk. That decision, she says, belongs to Congress.

GRANICK: It's Congress's responsibility to approve surveillance programs and it is the responsibility of all the courts to muddle through the question of how the Fourth Amendment protects American citizens in light of new technologies.

ABRAMSON: Granick wants to roll back the power of the surveillance court so it is once again approving individual warrants. But many intelligence officials say the nature of digital communications makes that difficult. Joel Brenner, former NSA inspector general, says limiting the court's role will inevitably hamper intelligence gathering.

JOEL BRENNER: The quantity of information that flows through a fiber optic cable is oceanic, and that means the court has to approve the filtering techniques. It's not going to just be able to approve the collection of a single phone number.

ABRAMSON: Whatever Congress does about the surveillance court's power, there is pressure to lay bare the legal decisions that the court uses to authorizes the collection of millions of phone records. Right now, those decisions are secret. Talking to C-SPAN recently, Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon says the court's legal basis can be disclosed without jeopardizing intelligence gathering.

SENATOR RON WYDEN: What we want to do is make sure that when it relates to national security, and that, for example, means keeping intelligence operations secret, we're going to do that at every step of the way. But that's different than keeping the law secret.

ABRAMSON: On Wednesday, the Senate Judiciary Committee holds a hearing to examine these and other approaches. Civil libertarians are optimistic they can still muster support for at least some new limits on government surveillance. But they will have to overcome strong support in both parties for the NSA's data collection programs. Larry Abramson, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.