House Intelligence Chairman Considering NSA Reform Legislation

Privacy advocate for secret court may be most agreeable FISA reform bill.

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The House is considering legislation that would reform the way the National Security Agency performs surveillance on citizens.

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There are a stack of bills in Congress seeking to add privacy protections to the government surveillance programs run by the National Security Agency, and House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers, R-Mich., said on Wednesday that he is considering "everything" as he creates a legislative package of reforms to be unveiled "before the end of the year."

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During an event at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce , Rogers said his committee is considering a wide range of proposed reforms to the NSA surveillance program as part of a legislative package that could contain "8 different changes to 15 different changes," to help "rebuild confidence in this program."

"I've been working on a package. We will do this in a bipartisan way," Rogers said. "People have confidence in their federal criminal justice system. Let's make it look as close to the [federal criminal justice system] as we can and still protect sources and methods."

The latest proposal to control NSA surveillance is a bill introduced on Wednesday by Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., and a group of Democratic senators that would prohibit bulk collection of phone and metadata records by the agency, and would create a civil liberties advocate to argue cases on the secret FISA court. The other co-authors of the bill are Senators Ron Wyden, D-Ore., Mark Udall, D-Colo., and Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn.

"Reforming the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act must restrict the executive's expansive powers to seize private records in secret and without probable cause," Paul said in a statement announcing the bill. "I support reforms on the way to a full restoration of our founders' idea embodied in the Fourth Amendment."

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The House narrowly defeated a proposed amendment to the defense appropriations bill in July that would have restricted the NSA's collection of phone records and metadata. After that experience the House appears more likely to support the creation of a civil liberties advocate to the FISA court. Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., proposed a bill on Sept. 20, to create such an advocate to represent civil liberties conerns to the FISA court and increase efforts to declassify FISA opinions.

Schiff does not have Republican co-sponsors for the bill yet, but says he is encouraged by President Barack Obama's support for the creation of a special advocate to the FISA court, which the president announced in August. The growing calls for NSA surveillance transparency and reform indicate to Schiff that the Libertarian presence in Congress has grown, he says.

"Privacy concerns have been elevated among the members of the Republican Party," Schiff says. "There should be someone playing an adversarial role against the FISA court to argue on behalf of constitutional rights. The court would benefit from that."

Schiff's bill and other possible NSA reforms are being considered for an addition to the upcoming Intelligence Reauthorization bill, Schiff says. The House Judiciary Committee may also play a role in that selection process, Schiff says. House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., said on Sept. 18 that "further protections are necessary," to protect Americans' civil liberties against government surveillance, which Schiff says is also "encouraging" for his bill proposing a special advocate to the FISA court.

"We may bring a reauthorization bill forward for markup by the Intelligence Committee within four to six weeks," Schiff says.

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A bill introduced in August by Blumenthal, Wyden and Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., also calls for the creation of a special advocate to the FISA court. Schiff's bill is "well-written, clear and doable," giving it a good chance for bipartisan support, says Greg Nojeim, a senior counsel at the Center for Democracy & Technology advocacy group. Increased transparency on surveillance and the creation of a privacy advocate at the FISA court are positive steps, but those steps do not go far enough to address civil liberties, Nojeim says.