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New calls for surveillance reform after Snowden

Several longtime critics of the National Security Agency unveiled a sweeping surveillance reform proposal Wednesday afternoon. "Historically, the limits of tec
NSA Reform - Adam Serwer - 09/25/2013
A man stands in the middle of Grand Central Terminal as he speaks on a cell phone, September 25, 2013.

Several longtime critics of the National Security Agency unveiled a sweeping surveillance reform proposal Wednesday afternoon.

"Historically, the limits of technology served as a strong check on the abilities of government to do surveillance," said Oregon Democratic Senator Ron Wyden. "The key to preserving liberty and security is to embed real legal protections for law-abiding Americans in the law."

The proposal, which is backed by Senate Democrats Mark Udall of Colorado, Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut and Republican Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky in addition to Senator Wyden,  includes ideas that Congress has voted down in the past and others that have been floating around since earlier this summer. Surveillance reform advocates believe that leaks regarding the scope of government surveillance powers facilitated by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden have altered the politics in their favor. In July, the Republican-controlled House came within several votes of outlawing bulk collection of Americans' communications records without a warrant.

"If you had told me months ago someone would come up to me in a barbershop and asked me about the FISA court, I would have said 'yeah right,'" said Wyden, explaining why he thinks the reforms have popular support. "It was a real lonely cause here, six, seven years ago...I think we've got exceptional momentum now."

There are three main elements to the bill. It would prevent the government from using the Patriot Act to collect the communications data of American citizens in bulk. (One of Snowden's first leaks was a secret court order allowing the government to collect the call records of all the customers of a Verizon subsidiary.) The bill would outlaw "backdoor searches," in which the NSA sifts through Americans' emails and phone calls without a warrant after they have been collected by programs intended to search through international communications.

"We need to end the NSA's collection of millions of innocent Americans' private phone records and focus on the real problem: terrorists and spies," said Udall. "Americans with no links to terrorists or espionage should not have to worry that the NSA is vaccuuming up their private information."

The third element of the proposal is the creation of a "constitutional advocate" for the secret foreign intelligence surveillance court, which approves or rejects US government requests to spy on suspected foreign agents. The court also issues key legal decisions--in secret--about the breadth of surveillance law. The advocate would argue against the government's position in such cases, ensuring that the process for obtaining secret surveillance warrants is not a mere rubber stamp.  The secret FISA court only rarely rejects government requests.

The Senate proposal would also compel disclosure of "significant" FISA court decisions. Recently disclosed FISA court documents show that in the past, the government has occasionally misled the secret court about its activities.

July's close vote in the House suggests that a bill similar to the one unveiled Wednesday could find broad bipartisan support. A spokesperson for Republican Rep. Justin Amash of Michigan, who partnered with Michigan Democrat John Conyers on July's narrowly defeated measure, said a similar effort in the House would get underway soon.