Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-California), Chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee and usually a staunch supporter of the National Security Agency (NSA), shocked the public and the political community by publicly chastising the agency for its surveillance of foreign allied leaders. Following NSA contractor Edward Snowden’s recent revelation that the NSA has collected data from cellphones of thirty-five leaders of foreign governments, Feinstein released a harsh statement on October 28 calling for “a total review of all intelligence programs.” She stated clearly: “Unless the United States is engaged in hostilities against a country or there is an emergency need for this type of surveillance, I do not believe the United States should be collecting phone calls or emails of friendly presidents and prime ministers.”
Feinstein is considered a friend to the NSA, and therefore many found her statement appalling, especially given the agency’s recent scandal as the public has become aware, through information leaked by Snowden, of the NSA’s collection of data on US citizens. However, as bold and severe as her statement is, Feinstein does not denounce her support for the NSA, nor does her statement reverse her previous viewpoint. While Feinstein opposes the NSA’s efforts to spy on foreign allied leaders, she takes no issue with the issue concerning most of the public—that of collecting data on US citizens.
Under the regulations of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 (FISA), the NSA is sanctioned to spy on foreigners. However, is not authorized to collect surveillance on Americans. Before Snowden’s efforts to inform the public of the NSA’s large-scale domestic surveillance program, it was presumed that the NSA simply carried out surveillance on turbulent and hostile countries such as Yemen, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.
However, those dismayed by Feinstein’s condemnation of the NSA should reconsider their reaction. A few days after her statement, Feinstein introduced an NSA reform bill called the FISA Improvements Act of 2013, which also takes many steps to authorize currently illegal NSA practices in the name of American security. Feinstein’s bill legalizes the NSA’s domestic surveillance program and expands the NSA’s focus from foreign enemies to American citizens as well by codifying the agency’s current practices into law. However, the bill also provides some reforms designed to make the NSA more transparent, such as punishments for those who gain unauthorized access to data, increased FISA court review, and a release to congress on proceedings.
In response to the objection that the bill affirms the most controversial aspects of the NSA, Feinstein emphasized the need to not put extremely limiting restrictions on the NSA: “The threats we face—from terrorism, proliferation and cyber attack, among others—are real, and they will continue. Intelligence is necessary to protect our national and economic security, as well as to stop attacks against our friends and allies around the world.” Former FBI director Robert Mueller and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper echo her sentiment in favor of not curtailing NSA domestic surveillance. Both attest that had the NSA domestic surveillance program existed before September 11, 2001, the attacks would have been prevented.
The bill’s major opposition is the USA Freedom Act of 2013, a bi-partisan bill cosponsored by Senators Michael Lee (R-Utah) and Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont), which provides even more drastic reform as it invalidates the NSA’s domestic surveillance program.
Regardless of whether Congress authorizes the NSA’s domestic surveillance, one can expect a greater focus and a more pointed conversation regarding US intelligence gathering this congressional term, with Feinstein’s call for a total review and inspection of intelligence programs as well as these two competing pieces of legislation.