Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden, Democrat and senior member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, is battling against the National Security Administration for answers into how many Americans' phone calls, text messages, E-mails, and other communications are under surveillance by government agencies.
Wyden, who has earned a reputation as an aggressive advocate for privacy, is pushing NSA as the Senate debates the reauthorization of the FISA Amendments Act of 2008, a bill that allows the government to wiretap individuals outside of the U.S. and any communication they might have, even if they engage with American citizens.
But NSA says it cannot reveal how many Americans might be affected because the effort would be too great an undertaking. [Big Cuts to Food Stamps in 2012 Farm Bill.]
"Obtaining such an estimate was beyond the capacity of [the] office and dedicating sufficient additional resources would likely impede the NSA's mission," the inspector general of the intelligence community told Wyden in a Monday letter.
The NSA inspector general also concluded that revealing even an estimate of the number of Americans under surveillance would "violate the privacy of U.S. persons."
"It is very disappointing that all of these inspector generals are responding this way," Wyden told U.S. News and World Report. "It would be one thing if we were asking for an extremely precise count of how many of these searches [were happening.]"
"All we get back is 'this is going to be the end of western civilization, we are going to have to do so much work,' " Wyden says.
But Robert Litt, general counsel for the office of the Director for National Intelligence, says this is not the first time Wyden has asked these questions.
"He keeps getting the same answer, and he keeps not believing it," Litt says.
"There is substantial oversight of this collection that is exercised not only by the court but by the Congress and by other branches of the U.S. government," Litt says, "This is in fact a statute that does strike an appropriate balance between the needs to protect the nation and to protect the privacy and civil liberties of U.S. persons."
The White House has requested that Congress moves swiftly to reauthorize the bill without any changes before it expires in December. But Wyden and Democrat Sen. Mark Udall of Colorado warn there are hidden civil liberties issues within the bill that need to be discussed.
While Wyden says he is interested in the scope of FISA's wiretapping provision, which remains shrouded in secrecy, the senator also says he is increasingly concerned about the law's "back-door search loopholes," a side effect of the legislation that he says allows the government to spy on U.S. citizens without a warrant.
Litt says Wyden's concerns are unfounded and that there is substantial oversight on the classified program.
Litt adds most people recognize that this is a statute that strikes the appropriate balance between the need to protect the nation and privacy.
But that isn't enough for Wyden, who in a rare move last week, pledged to force a debate of the legislation on the Senate floor.
"I just think it is unacceptable to ignore this back-door searches loophole," Wyden says. "We are going to pull out all the stops to close it before FISA is renewed."
Wyden says he's got the backing of other lawmakers, but he declined to name any.
House Intelligence Committee staff say they are optimistic their version of the legislation will move smoothly out of committee.
Michelle Richardson, legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, applauds Wyden's efforts and is optimistic that FISA will be changed.
"This is the first sunset, so this is probably the best chance for reform," Richardson says. "We are still optimistic, and we are going to still keep fighting on it."
Richardson says she understands that some information about the program must remain classified, but says that NSA's efforts to keep the overall number of Americans that have been wire tapped under wraps could be "because [they] are embarrassed by how many Americans [they] have been wiretapping."
She adds that there must be more provisions to protect citizens from being monitored without their knowledge. [Farm Bill Dodges Its First Bullet.]
"Like other surveillance laws, it is not a question of whether it will be extended, the question is whether there will be more transparency going forward, more accountability," she says. "We certainly hope there will be more privacy protections."
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