National security hawks criticized proposed reforms to the National Security Agency Tuesday as President Barack Obama prepared to endorse overhauls suggested by a review board.
The five members of the President’s Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee Tuesday, saying the reforms it recommended in a report will allow the NSA to continue to investigate terrorist activity while better protecting Americans’ privacy.
The review board released its report in December recommending more than 40 reforms to the NSA, including ending the warrantless collection of nearly all American phone records, requiring judicial approval to obtain Americans’ phone and financial records, and keeping such information in private, third-party databases.
The review group faced sharp questioning from Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D., Calif.) and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.), who have opposed greater scrutiny of the NSA’s surveillance programs and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) tasked with approving secret warrants for the intelligence community.
Feinstein listed a number of terrorist attacks and plots against the United States. “There's a real litany of fact here,” she said. “The question becomes, do you not find substantial value in preventing these kinds of attacks?”
“The question of efficacy for us did not really impact our view,” review board member and former CIA deputy director Michael Morell replied. “We do not believe that we're going to add a substantial burden to the government by making the changes we're suggesting.”
Graham said the asymmetric nature and religious fervor of terrorist groups demands strong surveillance methods to stop terrorist plots.
“We’re not fighting a country with a navy or a standing army. We're fighting an ideology,” Graham said. “We gotta hit them before they hit us. We've got to identify the attack before it happens.”
The intelligence community has argued the NSA’s bulk collection of Americans’ telephone “metadata” was instrumental in stopping a number of terrorist attacks.
However, the review board’s report said the NSA’s broad dragnet had done little to prevent such plots.
“The information contributed to terrorist investigations by the use of section 215 telephony meta-data was not essential to preventing attacks and could readily have been obtained in a timely manner using conventional section 215 orders,” the report said.
One of the more contentious recommendations in the review group’s report involves putting a public advocate on the FISC.
FISC judges sent Feinstein a letter on Tuesday opposing the review board’s recommendation.
"The participation of a privacy advocate is unnecessary and could prove counterproductive in the vast majority of [Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act] FISA matters," the judges wrote. "Advocate involvement in run-of-the-mill FISA matters would substantially hamper the work of the courts without providing any commensurate benefit in terms of privacy protection.”
“An advocate appointed at the discretion of the courts is likely to be helpful, whereas a standing advocate with independent authority to intervene at will could actually be counterproductive,” the judges continued.
The debate over the appropriate scope of the NSA’s power to spy on Americans—and the public’s right to scrutinize its decisions—has engulfed the Obama administration and Capitol Hill since former NSA contractor Edward Snowden first leaked details of the secret surveillance program in June of last year.
Splitting with his Democratic colleague Feinstein, Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Patrick Leahy (D., Vt.) has endorsed reforms to the NSA.
“This is a debate about Americans’ fundamental relationship with their government—about whether the government should have the power to create massive databases of information about its citizens,” Leahy said in a statement Tuesday. “I believe strongly that we must impose stronger limits on government surveillance powers, and I am confident that most Vermonters, and most Americans, agree with me.”