More than a month after a former government contractor blew the lid open on sweeping government surveillance programs, Congress this week is engaging in one of the most robust debates it has seen in years on the balance between liberty and security.
As early as Wednesday the House of Representatives will vote on legislation to strictly limit the surveillance powers the National Security Agency has assumed under the Patriot Act. The proposal, written in response to revelations that the NSA collects all of Verizon's U.S. phone records, has created unusual alliances and sharp divisions in Congress.
The bill would strip the NSA of its authority to collect records in bulk -- the security agency would have to show that a specific individual is under investigation before collecting such information. It's being put up for a vote as an amendment to the 2014 Defense Department appropriations legislation.
Leaders of the Senate Intelligence Committee on Tuesday called the House legislation "unwise," insisting that Congress is conducting proper NSA oversight. The program in question "has contributed to disrupting numerous terrorist attacks against our nation. It has been reviewed and authorized by all three branches of government and is subject to strict controls," committee chairwoman Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and vice chairman Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., said in a joint statement.
Army General Keith Alexander, the director of the NSA, privately briefed House members on Tuesday on how the legislation could hurt national security.
Across town on Tuesday, Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., a privacy advocate who sits on the Senate Intelligence Committee, hailed the House debate as a crucial step in the right direction.
Wyden said that he's not familiar yet with the specifics of the House legislation, but he said, "The fact that this has made it to the floor of the House of Representatives is unquestionably good."
"If we do not seize this unique moment in our constitutional history to reform our surveillance laws... we are all going to live to regret it," Wyden said at an event at the liberal Washington think tank the Center for American Progress. "The combination of increasingly advanced technology with the breakdown of checks and balances on government action could lead us to a surveillance state that could not be reversed."
The amendment to stop the NSA's blanket collection of information was sponsored by libertarian-leaning Rep. Justin Amash, R-Mich., but has found supporters in staunch liberals like Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich. Online privacy advocates are also commending Amash's amendment, while at least one grassroots group has been mobilizing public support for it, urging voters to call their congressmen about it.
Wyden, meanwhile, noted that the Senate is pursuing its own reforms in the wake of the revelations about the NSA programs, including legislation that would make declassify the opinions from the secret court that authorizes surveillance activities, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC).
Wyden said that in the summer of 2009 he received a written commitment from the Justice Department and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence that the government would start declassifying those opinions, with the proper redactions. Since then, however, exactly zero opinions have been released.
"We are going to keep the public debate alive," Wyden said.