Senators Mark Udall and Ron Wyden write: President Obama recently welcomed a public debate about how to protect both national security and privacy rights in the context of the National Security Agency’s domestic surveillance activities. Congress should not squander this opportunity to have an open, transparent discussion about the limits of executive power and the surveillance of Americans. We believe that, when presented with all the facts, most Americans would agree with us that the White House should end the bulk collection of Americans’ phone records and instead obtain this information directly from phone companies, using regular court orders based on individual suspicion.
We have had concerns about domestic surveillance authorities for several years. Through our oversight work on the Senate intelligence committee, we have become convinced that the government needs to scale back overly intrusive surveillance activities to better protect Americans’ constitutional privacy rights and that this can be done while protecting U.S. national security. We have not been able to fully engage the public on these issues because the executive branch insisted on keeping its interpretation of the law secret. Although we would have preferred that this discussion had been sparked by a more transparent executive branch, rather than by unauthorized leaks, we welcome an open debate about the federal government’s dragnet collection of Americans’ phone records under Section 215 of the USA Patriot Act.
Our view of this program is shaped by our experience with the NSA’s bulk e-mail records collection program. Concerned about this program’s impact on Americans’ civil liberties and privacy rights, we spent a significant portion of 2011 pressing intelligence officials to provide evidence of its usefulness. They were not able to do so, and it was shut down that year. This experience demonstrated to us that intelligence agencies’ assessments of the effectiveness of particular collection programs are not always accurate, and it led us to be skeptical of claims about the value of collecting bulk phone records. [Continue reading…]