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8 senators call for law to declassify surveillance decisions but find opposition

WASHINGTON — Eight U.S. senators — six Democrats and two Republicans — demanded Tuesday that the public be given more details about the top-secret surveillance programs that scoop up the phone and Internet records of millions of Americans.

But they were met with a torrent of opposition as Senate leaders, as well as much of the rank and file, vigorously defended the programs in a sign of how difficult it would be in Congress to change the law that governs such surveillance.

In a rare display of cooperation, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Republican leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., rallied behind the programs.

“What is clear from this information released by the (director of national intelligence) is that each of these programs is authorized by law, overseen by Congress and the courts and subject to ongoing and rigorous oversight,” McConnell said.

Reid cited polls this week that found backing for the programs. “The American people, in polls . support what is happening with trying to stop terrorists from doing bad things to us,” he said.

A Pew-Washington Post poll last Thursday through Sunday found that 56 percent saw the National Security Agency’s secret court orders to track millions of Americans’ phone calls as an acceptable way to probe terrorism. The survey found strong support across party lines.

Reid also was critical of senators who have said they don’t have enough information about the programs.

“We’ve had many, many meetings that have been both classified and unclassified that members have been invited to,” he said. “They shouldn’t come and say, ‘I wasn’t aware of this,’ because they’ve had every opportunity to be aware of all these programs.”

Their comments came on the first full day of work for both houses of Congress since news broke last week about the surveillance programs. One of them collects phone data from as many as a billion Americans, and the other allows the government to search nine American Internet companies.

Obama administration officials have defended both programs as allowing a broad search for terrorist-related communications. They say no U.S. person’s records are perused unless a court order has been issued.

Outrage over the program, however, prompted administration officials to hold a briefing Tuesday for all 435 members of the House of Representatives. A similar briefing for the country’s 100 senators has been scheduled for Thursday.

Members of Congress were quick to denounce Edward Snowden, the 29-year-old computer system administrator who said he had leaked the material to two newspapers, Britain’s The Guardian and The Washington Post.

“He’s a traitor,” House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, told ABC. “The disclosure of this information puts Americans at risk. It shows our adversaries what our capabilities are. And it’s a giant violation of the law.”

Eight senators, however, said they would push for legislation that would require greater transparency. The bill they introduced Tuesday would require the attorney general to declassify “significant Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court opinions.” The court hears secret requests from government prosecutors for subpoenas and other requests for records under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. The court, which was created in 1979, has acted on more than 30,000 such requests. It has rejected 11 of them.

Disclosing the court’s rulings, the senators said in a joint statement, would allow people “to know how broad of a legal authority the government is claiming to spy on Americans under the Patriot Act and Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.”

The group included stalwarts of the Senate’s left and right, led by Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., and Mike Lee, R-Utah. The other sponsors are Sens. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., Dean Heller, R-Nev., Mark Begich, D-Alaska, Al Franken, D-Minn., Jon Tester, D-Mont., and Ron Wyden, D-Ore.

“There is plenty of room to have this debate without compromising our surveillance sources or methods or tipping our hand to our enemies,” Merkley said. “We can’t have a serious debate about how much surveillance of Americans’ communications should be permitted without ending secret law.”

“Alaskans highly value their privacy and their right to privacy,” Begich said. “Our Alaska Constitution specifically protects this right from being trampled on while ensuring national security information isn’t at risk.”


Asked when his plan might come up, Merkley was vague. The Senate intends to debate immigration legislation the rest of this month, and it’s not expected that Merkley’s plan could be attached to that measure.

“I can’t speak to that yet,” Merkley said of his plan’s legislative strategy.

Neither could Reid. “I don’t know what it is, but will be happy to take a look at it,” he said.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a leading Senate voice on national security matters, was not supportive.

“The whole point is to have judicial oversight without telling our enemies,” he said. “Why don’t we just take ads out in the paper and tell al-Qaida this is the way we’re following you around. Do you have any problems? Call us. This is ridiculous.”

There was also little eagerness to start a broader debate.

“I believe the programs are legal,” said Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich.

Reid said the Intelligence Committee “has done their very utmost, in my opinion, to conduct oversight.”


©2013 McClatchy Washington Bureau

Visit the McClatchy Washington Bureau at www.mcclatchydc.com

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