Udall leads fight to end government’s secret surveillance of Americans
Sen. Mark Udall’s efforts to amend the Patriot Act to protect loyal Americans from National Security Agency surveillance received a boost in support after new revelations leaked by Edward Snowden.
Udall and his colleague, Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon, were among nine bipartisan Senate and House members invited to the White House by President Barack Obama to discuss key government surveillance programs.
According to Udall, the purpose of the meeting was to discuss “this nation’s surveillance of American citizens, and more generally about how we can balance our national security interests with our constitutional rights to privacy.”
The White House invitation is an acknowledgement that, after revelations by Snowden, the government has no recourse but to take ownership of surveillance programs it once denied existed.
Before the Snowden leaks, Udall says he did everything he could short of violating secrecy laws to communicate the danger to Americans’ right to privacy posed by NSA data collection.
Along with Wyden, Udall introduced legislation to limit NSA’s power to use indiscriminate “dragnet” programs to collect telephone and electronic “metadata” from Americans under no suspicion of terrorism.
The bill attracted bipartisan support from the liberals and libertarians in Congress, but not enough votes to pass it. Most legislators at the time seemed unconcerned about the issue.
All that changed in June when newspapers here and in Britain published stories based on documents leaked by Snowden, confirming that NSA was collecting far more “metadata” on Americans than people realized.
Metadata is a record left by every telephone call and email. Though it excludes content, metadata can chart the numbers and locations of telephone callers and the people they contact. Email metadata records addresses of senders and recipients, which experts say can be used to track people and build intimate portraits of their social circles and habits.
After the House of Representatives narrowly passed a bill to continue funding the NSA surveillance program, Udall commented on the growing support in the House “to reform and better focus the federal government’s ongoing surveillance program that collects bulk phone records on millions of Americans.”
Meanwhile, since Snowden’s leaks, the administration has maintained that the wholesale collection of phone records is lawful, essential to fighting terrorism and tightly controlled by rules protecting Americans’ privacy.
Reform efforts gained more momentum one day prior to the meeting with the president, after a new Snowden leak released by the Guardian newspaper in Britain revealed a previously unknown NSA program that can chart individuals’ Internet activities in real time. It also enables analysts to search databases revealing detailed information about millions of people.
Named the XKeyscore program, it was called the NSA’s “widest reaching” program “for developing intelligence from the Internet and it mined the web from 150 locations around the globe,” a McClatchy news report by Ali Watkins and Jonathan S. Landay said.
According to Watkins and Landay, XKeyscore “can chart individuals’ Internet activities in real time. It also allows analysts to search databases holding the emails, online chats and browsing histories of millions of people.”
The report charges, “National Security Agency officials violated secret federal court orders authorizing the daily collection of domestic email and telephone data from hundreds of millions of Americans, according to previously top-secret documents” made public last week.
These developments added to the political uproar ignited by the Snowden leaks that disclosed how the NSA collected “metadata” from commercial service providers to compile the daily telephone calls and emails of tens of millions of Americans, with the authorization of the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.
Even if collected for the most benign reasons, large archived files of data on individual Americans will always be a temptation to those who would exploit the information for their own political gains.
Chance for passage of a bill protecting Americans from surveillance by their own government never looked better. But even if Udall and his colleagues do not succeed in passing legislation, their highlighting of these secret government programs is a service to the nation.