Democrats Seek to Reform FISA Court in Light of NSA Revelations

Senators fight for more transparency in FISA court.

(Left) Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., gestures during a news conference on Capitol Hill Dec. 16, 2009, in Washington D.C. (Right) Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., stands on the steps of Hartford Conn., City Hall on April 5, 2013.

two new bills introduced by Sens. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., would reform the secret FISA court that gave the government the ability to spy on Americans in the first place.

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As Edward Snowden left a Russian airport terminal Thursday, a group of Senate Democrats introduced the first two bills to reform the National Security Administration's secret spying programs.

Introduced by Sens. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., Ron Wyden, D-Ore., the two new bills would reform the secret FISA court that gave the government the ability to spy on Americans in the first place.

The first bill would change the way FISA court judges are appointed and ensure that judges come from varying regions of the country and represent a broad political spectrum. The second would create an independent office that would argue for civil liberties in the court and have the ability to appeal a FISA court decision thus ensuring the secret court did not act as a rubber stamp, approving all of the government's requests to collect large volumes of Americans' communications.

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Senators argue reforming the court is one of the best ways to rebuild trust between voters and the NSA after the Guardian newspaper broke the news that the government was sweeping up millions of Americans phone records and using a program known as PRISM to monitor their Internet activities.

"The FISA court is a judicial body with no parallel in American history," Wyden said during a press conference Wednesday. "A group of judges operating in complete secret and issuing binding rulings based solely on the government's arguments have made possible the sweeping surveillance authorities that the public only found out about two months ago. This court must be reformed to include an adversarial process where arguments for greater privacy protections can be offered alongside the government's arguments for greater surveillance powers."

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The FISA court was established 33 years ago and out of the more than 30,000 record requests that have been made by the government, just 11 of them were stopped, according the senators.

Lawmakers say that is a sign that the court needs reforming.

"FISA courts appear to be stacked against our civil liberties," Blumenthal said. "When FISA court judges make decisions with profound implications for the individual rights of every American, they should first hear both sides of the argument."

The fight over the NSA has been intensifying on Capitol Hill.

In late July Rep. Justin Amash, R-Mich., led a bipartisan campaign to defund an NSA program through a defense spending bill if the agency continued to collect phone data of Americans who were not under investigation.

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The effort ultimately failed, but barely.

Tech companies like Facebook and Microsoft are also beginning to throw their weight behind efforts to restrict the NSA from collecting data inside the U.S.

According to the Center for Responsive Politics, tech lobbyists are beginning to spend their time meeting with lawmakers about the scope of the classified data collection programs.

Twelve companies mentioned FISA as one of the main issues they were spending time on in the second quarter, something that they had not lobbied on before Snowden revealed the NSA's programs.

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