Lawmakers divided over what Obama's NSA speech means for agency

Posted by Ali Watkins on January 19, 2014 

NSA Surveillance Shutdown

Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., left, talks with Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., during the committee's oversight hearing on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

EVAN VUCCI — AP

Lawmakers on Sunday’s political talk shows continued to be divided over President Barack Obama’s proposed changes to the National Security Agency’s massive data dragnets, suggesting the debate over the programs is far from over.

Heavy-hitters from both political parties and both sides of the debate clashed over what the proposed changes could mean for the nation’s intelligence gathering, and discordant statements showed that even the agency’s chief congressional overseers don’t agree on what Friday’s speech actually meant.

Despite hope from NSA defenders that the President’s address would head off some of the more stringent legislative proposals on the Hill, lawmakers were clear that the speech didn’t placate congressional critics.

Vermont Democrat and Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy told FOX News Sunday that Friday’s speech didn’t head off congressional reform. 

“There’s still going to be legislation on this,” he said.

Leahy himself is sponsoring a bill that would require massive overhauls of the NSA’s programs, which he touted in a tweet posted after his FOX appearance.

Colorado Democrat Mark Udall, a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee and outspoken critic of the NSA, echoed calls for congressional action.

“We’ve got a mission still in front of us, and that is to implement all of the changes that [the President] proposed,” Udall said on CBS’s "Face the Nation."

But while Leahy and Udall suggested the reforms were only a starting point, two of the NSA’s chief congressional overseers hinted that the pending changes had already gone too far.

Michigan Republican Mike Rogers and California Democrat Dianne Feinstein, chairs of the House and Senate Intelligence Committees, respectively, expressed concern over the President’s intention to take the data stores out of government hands, saying it could put the nation at risk.

“I think that’s a very difficult thing,” Feinstein told NBC’s "Meet the Press." “The whole purpose of this program is to provide instantaneous information to be able to disrupt any plot that may be taking place.”

Rogers also questioned the President’s proposal to require an individual warrant before sifting through the massive data stores. “Calling for a warrant before access…that’s concerning,” he told CBS.

The divides among legislators are nothing new in the NSA debate. The more interesting trend that emerged from Sunday’s shows was a general disagreement about what the President’s speech actually meant for the agency’s programs.

While Udall said Friday’s speech indicated an end to the NSA’s bulk collection of domestic metadata, Feinstein said the President “clearly” indicated that the programs would stay firmly in place, albeit with some adjustments.

When asked if she thought the dragnets would come to an end, Feinstein said she didn’t believe so.

Both Feinstein and Rogers lambasted defenses of former defense contractor Edward Snowden, whose leaks first revealed the program's existence last June. Defenders of Snowden have said the President’s address vindicate his actions, and render him a whistleblower rather than a traitor.

It’s a defense both Feinstein and Rogers - who suggested Sunday that Snowden had been working for Russia when he made off with thousands of classified documents — wouldn’t hear.

“To glorify this act is really to set a new level of dishonor,” Feinstein said.

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