Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., listens to testimony about NSA surveillance before the Senate Appropriations Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, June 12, 2013.
Charles Dharapak/AP

Congressional leaders dismiss clemency for Snowden

Updated

The leaders of the Congressional intelligence committees said Sunday they oppose any possibility of clemency for Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor who released thousands of documents shedding light on the agency’s constant global surveillance.

Nearly five months after the first reports based on the documents were published, Snowden - who is living in Russian under temporary asylum - requested clemency through a German member of parliament. Snowden also suggested he would be willing to testify before Congress about NSA abuses and help German authorities investigate allegations of U.S. spying on their country.

Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Rep. Mike Rogers (R-MI) have been forceful defenders of the intrusive and secretive surveillance programs, many of which collect private information from US citizens and companies without their knowledge.

The revelations, which have appeared chiefly in The Washington Post and the Guardian, have stoked public outrage and harmed U.S. diplomatic relations with many key allies.

Feinstein and Rogers, appearing on CBS Face the Nation, said the 30-year-old Snowden deserved punishment, not clemency. Neither seemed interested in exploring possible civil liberties violations or much oversight.

“We’ve focused a lot on the NSA but not on what the threat is,” Rogers said. “The bad guys are not U.S. intelligence agencies.”

Rogers compared the prospect of reigning in the NSA’s activities to both American isolationism before Second World and the breakdown of intelligence and communication that preceded the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001.

NSA Director Michael V. Hayden led the spy agency as it began pushing domestic warrantless surveillance during the Bush administration. He downplayed revelations that the United States had monitored the cell phone of German Prime Minister Angela Merkel. “This wasn’t exceptional,” Hayden said. “This is what we were expected to do.”

Hayden got a taste last month of what it feels like to be spied on. While riding the Amtrak train from Washington to New York, he was overheard by a fellow passenger while speaking on the phone. Hayden was apparently talking with a reporter from Time Magazine, insisting on anonymity as he spoke derisively about President Obama and defending Bush-era CIA tactics including torture of detainees and a practice known as rendition, where foreign terrorism suspects where kidnapped and then secretly transported around the world. The passenger who overheard Hayden, posted parts of the conversation to his Twitter account.  

But public anger over the NSA’s seemingly endless surveillance has had almost no impact on Congress.

Last week, Feinstein shepherded a bill through her committee, the FISA Improvements Act, that she has said would prohibit the government from bulk collection of Americans’ phone records. In fact, the bill does no such thing.

Not only does it officially permit the NSA to continue doing so, it could allow for even more expansive surveillance.

Feinstein’s bill “takes what the NSA is already doing and puts it in legislation, and says ‘you can’t do more than this,’” Elizabeth Goitein, co-director of the Liberty and National Security Program at the Brennan Center for Justice, told MSNBC.

Given that the government’s authority to collect records is questionable at best, it would represent a major victory for the agency. According to Goitein, the bill could allow the NSA to make an unlimited number of “hops,” or communications between a target and someone, and communications between that person and others, when tracking connections between people under suspicion by the agency.

Goitein and others, including Democratic Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon, have also singled out a provision in the bill that could allow “backdoor searches,” so the NSA could collect Americans’ messages and phone calls without a warrant.

James Sensenbrenner, the Republican representative from Wisconsin who helped author the PATRIOT Act, and Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont are leading a bipartisan charge to ban bulk collection of data. Republican Representative Justin Amash of Michigan has been pushing a similar ban since the narrow defeat of an amendment in August that he offered with his Democratic counterpart from Michigan. Rep. John Conyers. The intervening months have only offered more evidence of the scope of the NSA’s collection and of myriad abuses of authority.

“Under Sen. Feinstein’s bill, for the first time, the federal government would be explicitly empowered to seize the records of all Americans–even those who the government knows have done nothing wrong,” Will Adams, a spokesman for Amash told MSNBC. Any “The Constitution protects Americans from constant surveillance.”

Goitein and other privacy advocates think arguments like Feinstein’s and Hayden’s obscure what’s really at stake for the public. “There is a clear choice: are we going to continue to allow unbridled access to Americans’ information in the absence of any basis for suspicion, or are we going to continue to uphold the approach we’ve had for decades that says Americans’ personal information is off limits unless there is a specific individual basis. We can cut ties with the values we have brought with us that balance privacy and security or continue to uphold them.”

Congressional leaders dismiss clemency for Snowden

Updated