US National Security Agency

Obama, Congress square-off over NSA spying programme

Administration worried by vote on legislation that would block the National Security Agency's ability to collect phone records in US

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 25 July, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 25 July, 2013, 2:51am

The Obama administration has scrambled to blunt congressional opposition to the National Security Agency's domestic spying operations as the House of Representatives prepared to vote on legislation that would block the agency's collection of records about every phone call dialled or received inside the United States.

General Keith Alexander, the NSA director, met Democrats and Republicans to lobby against a proposed amendment to a military appropriations bill that would stop financing for the NSA's phone data collection programme. A vote on that bill was expected as early as yesterday.

The Republican-sponsored legislation is one of the first congressional efforts to curb the agency's domestic spying efforts since they were disclosed by Edward Snowden, the former NSA contractor, who fled to Hong Kong before ending up in Russia four weeks ago.

The White House has praised the idea of a debate about surveillance but denounced "the current effort in the House to hastily dismantle" the call tracking programme, urging lawmakers to vote down the legislation and instead conduct a "reasoned review of what tools can best secure the nation."

"This blunt approach is not the product of an informed, open, or deliberative process," the White House said.

This blunt approach is not the product of an informed, open, or deliberative process

Alexander's visit to Capitol Hill came as a leading Senate critic of the NSA's large-scale collection of data about Americans' phone calls spoke out about expansive government surveillance. He declared that recent leaks about domestic spying by Snowden have created a "unique moment in our constitutional history" to reform what he said has become "an always expanding, omnipresent surveillance state."

Ron Wyden, a Democrat, the leading Senate critic and a member of the intelligence committee, also hinted that the revelation that the government has been keeping records of every domestic phone call is not the only such extensive programme. And he criticised national security officials in the Obama administration, saying they have "actively" misled the American public about domestic surveillance.

"As we have seen in recent days, the intelligence leadership is determined to hold on to this authority," Wyden said. "Merging the ability to conduct surveillance that reveals every aspect of a person's life with the ability to conjure up the legal authority to execute that surveillance, and finally, removing any accountable judicial oversight, creates the opportunity for unprecedented influence over our system of government."

Wyden spoke at the Centre for American Progress, a liberal research group. He had been among a handful of senators warning - years before Snowden's leaks - that the government was secretly interpreting its powers under the Patriot Act in an alarming way.

While he has long been a critic of the government's domestic surveillance authorities and its reliance on what he calls secret law - classified memos and court rulings interpreting laws like the Patriot Act - the speech went further in criticising the government and calling for change.

Among other things, Wyden suggested that the bulk collection of all domestic phone records is not the only such effort, saying that Snowden's disclosures meant the public was finally able to see "some" of what he has been raising alarms about and that the same legal theory has been deemed to authorise "secret surveillance programmes" - plural - "that I and colleagues think go far beyond the intent of the statute."

Wyden said that the government's theory of its power under the Patriot Act to collect records about people from third parties is "essentially limitless," saying it could use that authority to gather in bulk medical, financial, credit card and gun-ownership records or lists of "readers of books and magazines deemed subversive."