The U.S. Congress should appoint an independent committee to investigate possible surveillance abuses by the U.S. National Security Agency, two high-profile former senators said Tuesday.
The current process of the U.S. Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court approving massive data collection requests from the NSA isn't protecting privacy and civil liberties, said former Senators Walter Mondale and Gary Hart, both Democratic members of the so-called Church Committee that investigated intelligence abuses in the mid-1970s.
The intelligence reforms set up after the Church Committee found many questionable intelligence practices have been twisted into weaker protections than many of the committee members originally intended, Hart and Mondale said during a Georgetown University Law Center forum.
Congress, through a new independent committee, needs to "restore a sense of protection of our First Amendment rights" to free speech, Hart said.
Hart and Mondale, both former U.S. presidential candidates, called for new reforms following revelations this year by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden about massive data collection efforts at the NSA. The NSA has been collecting large numbers of U.S. phone records and overseas Internet communications for years, according to leaks from Snowden.
A new, independent committee needs to look at data collection transparency, claims of state secrets, and the role of courts in approving surveillance, said Mondale, a former U.S. vice president. The intelligence reforms that grew out of the Church Committee, including the establishment of the U.S. surveillance court and congressional intelligence committees, over time haven't worked "as fully or as completely as we had intended," he said.
The House and Senate intelligence committees don't seem to be keeping the rest of Congress and the general public informed about surveillance activities that can be shared, he said. "I'm not comfortable that part of the committee's role is being as fully pursued as we had hoped," he said. "We wanted checks and balances. We wanted accountability."
The Church Committee members believed the surveillance court would have a limited role in approving warrant requests from intelligence and law enforcement agencies targeted at specific suspects, he added. The Church Committee members were "very suspicious" of mass, preemptive data collection now happening at the NSA, Mondale said.
The NSA's "vacuum cleaner approach" to collecting U.S. residents' phone records evokes mass surveillance written about by George Orwell, added Loch Johnson, former special assistant to the Church Committee, now a political science professor at the University of Georgia. U.S. lawmakers need to reassert their oversight responsibilities over the NSA, he said.
A new investigation into the NSA should "take a hard look" at whether the surveillance court is going beyond approving warrants and making policy, Mondale said.
A representative of the NSA referred questions about a new Church Committee to the U.S. Department of Justice. A DOJ spokesman declined to comment.
Hart challenged the audience at Tuesday's event to think about ways to protect privacy while maintaining security. "You have to think about the nature of privacy in this new world, and how much you are willing to risk to maintain and protect that privacy," he said. "I think that is the critical question of our democracy in the years to come."
Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's email address is [email protected]