Lawmakers Seek Variety of Solutions to Quell Concerns Over NSA Spying

Document declassification may be the way to repair trust with public, senators say.

(Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP)

House Intelligence Committee Ranking Member Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger, D- Md., is followed by reporters after a closed briefing on the NSA on June 11, 2013.

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Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, was flabbergasted when she found out that the man who had disclosed one of the most top-secret counterterrorism programs the intelligence community has ever used was a 29-year-old high school dropout making six figures in Hawaii.

"I am just stunned that an individual who did not even have a high school diploma, who did not successfully complete his military service, and who is only age 29, had access to some of the most highly classified information in our government," says Collins, a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee.

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"That is astonishing to me and it suggests real problems in the vetting process."

Reforming the way the federal government disperses security clearances was just one of several solutions senators are offering to try to restore the public's trust in the country's intelligence community. A report conducted by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence shows that as of last year, roughly 1.7 million people had access to highly classified information.

Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, threw his support behind a bill introduced Tuesday that would declassify the decisions of the FISA court, a judicial body steeped in secrecy that gave the go-ahead for NSA to collect millions of Americans' phone records and mine the electronic communication of foreigners under the PRISM program.

 

"I love it. It is awesome. We need it," Lee says of the bill. "People are understandably really concerned about this thing.

"There has been a pretty public example of why people ought to be concerned about these laws that are really broad and they give government all kinds of power."

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., did not dismiss the bill outright and said he'd "take a look" if it made it through the committee process.

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Senate Intelligence Chairman Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., the most enlightened senator on the country's intelligence matters, suggested instead that the NSA declassify some key documents that would illustrate to the American people how the data mining programs have effectively stopped terrorism in its tracks.

"There are other things that are also classified that would be helpful since this has all exploded for the American public to know," she told reporters following an intelligence briefing.

Others were more focused on seeking justice.

Sen. Angus King, R-Maine, said he wanted to see the leaker Edward Snowden extradited and tried in court for taking it upon himself to "single handedly rewrite America's national security policy."

"I don't think it is appropriate," says King, a member of the intelligence committee. "I think he should have to pay the consequences."

But some of the country's privacy hawks want to take an entirely different approach.

Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., says he plans to sue the U.S. for violating its citizens' Fourth Amendment rights.

"What is more important is the 300 million Americans who are having their phone records violated and are potentially being tracked with their movements through GPS," Paul says as he took his phone from his pocket and waved it into the air. "You are all missing the boat if you are not interested in the Bill of Rights. That is what I am interested in."

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What members seem to be united about is the need to do more oversight and the need for lawmakers to step up and ask tougher questions about the top-secret programs.

"You leave those briefings. You think they are going to pick out Joe Blow or Mary Smith, they've been talking to terrorists," says Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa. "You don't think in terms of sweeping up 3 million phone records."

Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., is a member of the intelligence committee who has expressed concern all along said that he would like to see NSA Director Eric Clapper come back into the hot seat. The senator said it makes it tough to provide oversight when no one is giving you straight answers.

Wyden says that during a hearing earlier this year, Clapper promised him that no Americans were being included in any of these searches.