US senators have taken a small step towards tightening up controls on the National Security Agency’s sweeping surveillance activities. Critics of the draft legislation, though, say it doesn’t go nearly far enough.
The US Senate Intelligence Committee on Thursday approved by a vote of 11-4 to impose new limits on how much American telephone data the National Security Agency (NSA) can gather. It would also impose a five-year limit on how long the NSA could store such data.
A joint statement released by the committee's chairwoman, Republican Senator Dianne Feinstein of the Democrats and its senior Republican, Senator Saxby Chambliss, said the proposed legislation would increase congressional and judicial oversight of intelligence activities. It would also make accessing the classified information without authorization a crime, punishable by up to 10 years in prison.
Spying to continue
However, the statement also made clear that the Senators believed that while there should be stricter oversight and more transparency, they fully supported the NSA's role.
"The threats we face - from terrorism, proliferation and cyberattack, among others - are real, and they will continue," the statement said. "Intelligence is necessary to protect our national and economic security, as well as to stop attacks against our friends and allies around the world."
Critics, though, attacked the proposed changes as being, at best, a paper tiger.
Voices of dissent
One of the four committee members who voted against the proposal, Democratic Senator Ron Wyden, said in a statement that if passed, it would essentially amount to enshrining in law the surveillance practices that the NSA has been conducting for years.
"More and more Americans are saying that they refuse to give up their constitutionally guaranteed liberties for the appearance of security; the intelligence committee has passed a bill that ignores this message," Wyden said.
Privacy advocates, who have long called for the end of broad government snooping, objected to the bill. David Segal, executive director of advocacy group Demand Progress, said, "Lawmakers must immediately recognize this legislation for the sham that it is - and reject it outright."
It's also far from a certainty that the legislation will ever become law. To do so, it would still have to be passed by both the Senate and the House of Representatives, before being passed on to President Barack Obama for his signature.
Not only that, but it is facing competition from a separate bill introduced earlier in the week by Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy and Republican Representative James Sensenbrenner. Their bill would put an end to what they described as the "dragnet collection" of information by US intelligence agencies.
The mass surveillance activities, which have come to light though information leaked by former NSA subcontractor Edward Snowden, have caused outrage particularly among America's allies. A report published in the New York Times on Thursday quoted a former US intelligence official, who indicated that the reported tapping of German Chancellor Angela Merkel's mobile phone was merely the tip of the iceberg. "They suck up every phone number they can in Germany," the unnamed former official said.
pfd/jm ( Reuters, AP)