Big Data

Government’s Data Grabs Are Unlikely to Prompt Legislative Action

J. Scott Applewhite/AP file photo

Despite the political and media furor surrounding the recent news about data collection by the National Security Agency, the appetite among some top lawmakers for undoing the legislation that allowed the sweeps is meager.

The revelations that the government obtained millions of Verizon customers’ phone records, and that the NSA directly accessed information from top Internet service providers, prompted libertarian and liberal lawmakers alike to decry the news.

But congressional leaders have been reticent to suggest legislative changes. It’s a signal, insiders say, not to expect Congress to roll back the laws that empowered the secret courts to authorize the programs.

“I can’t imagine any legislative proposal to amend some of these programs will be passed by Congress,” said Jim Manley, a former aide to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.

For one, Congress has twice authorized the legislation first crafted during George W. Bush’s presidency, and with President Obama’s approval. The imperative to provide security has been strong and deeply ingrained among lawmakers since Sept. 11, 2001.

“I know for a fact the programs saved lives,” said Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., coming off the floor after adjourning the Senate for the week.

A bipartisan group of lawmakers, including leaders from both parties, pointed to the security benefits of the sweeps, first reported in The Guardian and The Washington Post.

Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Vice Chairman Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., issued a joint statement noting the intelligence community has “helped protect the nation.” Chambliss earlier this week said the surveillance was “nothing new,” and Feinstein pointed out that Congress received briefings on the NSA’s activity.

Reid said this week that people should just “calm down.” A spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, referred a reporter to the committees of jurisdiction, avoiding the topic. House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers, R-Mich., noted that the program has halted attacks.

Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina even defended embattled Attorney General Eric Holder this week, arguing the NSA and FBI’s telecommunications collection is an effective national security tool.

“Most members of Congress would rather err on the side of security than on the side of privacy,” said John Feehery, who was an aide to former Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill.

Not all lawmakers support the programs, though. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., introduced a bill on Friday “to stop the National Security Agency from spying on citizens of the United States.” Paul, who is considering a presidential run in 2016, called the programs an “assault” on citizens’ rights, putting him in the same camp as left-leaning colleagues like Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.

Politically, though, some insiders predict efforts like Paul’s won’t gain traction. “Privacy is important to a small segment of the population, but security is important to a bigger section of the population,” Feehery said.

This article appears in the June 10, 2013, edition of National Journal Daily as "Government Data Grabs Unlikely to Prompt Hill Action."

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