WASHINGTON: A White House review of U.S. surveillance programs has given Congress some temporary political cover after lawmakers failed this year to overhaul spy operations, and could break the legislative snarl that followed months of global outrage over privacy intrusions.
Since last summer, a deeply divided Congress has tussled over competing plans to protect Americans’ privacy rights by limiting National Security Agency powers to track terrorists.
But a presidential advisory panel’s 46 tough recommendations, released last week by the White House, offer a way ahead for lawmakers who face the voters next fall. They can point to the suggestions to save face politically with security-minded constituents if surveillance is scaled back aggressively.
“The American public is expressing an opinion that it feels safer, and we don’t need as many of these intrusive-sounding programs as we needed a decade ago,” said Tom Newcomb, a former CIA officer and lawyer who served as a counterterror adviser to President George W. Bush.
“The political risk, as I see it, is all of this changes if we get a terrorist attack or a significant attempt that scares us again,” said Newcomb, who’s now a criminal justice and political science professor at Heidelberg University in Tiffin.
“And then Congress, which has generally taken it upon itself to assign blame, will blame those who reformed.”
At the least, the review finally could prod Congress into defining the extent to which the United States should spy on its citizens and foreign allies.
The recommendations “reaffirm what many of my colleagues and I have been saying since June — the NSA has gone too far,” said Rep. James F. Sensenbrenner, R-Wis.
The review group adopted the central part of legislation that he is pushing — barring the NSA from its massive daily sweep of U.S. telephone records.
Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., said he found a lot in the report “for a reformer to like.”
There’s no guarantee that President Barack Obama will embrace all the recommendations from the group, which includes former intelligence officials. Also, the review drew sharp criticism from lawmakers who fear that limiting surveillance could lead to future attacks on the country.
In a news release Friday, the Democratic and Republican leaders of the House and Senate intelligence committees said some of the group’s conclusions were “misleading.” They urged the White House to reject a recommendation to scrap the bulk collection of telephone records known as “metadata.”
“The NSA’s metadata program is a valuable analytical tool that assists intelligence personnel in their efforts to efficiently ‘connect the dots’ on emerging or current terrorist threats directed against Americans in the United States,” wrote Sens. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., and Reps. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., and Dutch Ruppersburger, D-Md. “We continue to believe that it is vital this lawful collection program continue.”