Blumenthal promotes surveillance reform

In a speech at Harvard Thursday, Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., promoted proposals that would change and limit the operations of a tribunal that approves wiretaps and other surveillance for the FBI and National Security Agency.

Blumenthal, a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, has plunged into a fracas in Congress touched off by revelations by Edward Snowden, a former NSA contractor, regarding the NSA’s snooping on Americans. 

At the center of the controversy is the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA. It established courts that oversee federal law enforecment’s requests for surveillance warrants against suspected foreign intelligence agents.

Current law also allows eavesdropping on domestic soil without warrants as long as the “target” is a noncitizen living abroad.

Blumenthal has introduced two bills that would rein in some of those surveillance powers.

One would create a special advocate that would argue in FISA courts on behalf of the right to privacy. Another would reform how judges are appointed to the FISA courts to ensure that the court is geographically and ideologically diverse.

“My view is that they fail to reflect the diversity that our federal judges do across the country,” Blumenthal said.

The 11 FISA court judges are appointed by the chief justice of the Supreme Court. All of the judges sitting on FISA courts today were appointed by Chief Justice John Roberts, who was nominated to the Supreme Court by a Republican president, George W. Bush. In addition, East Coast judges are overrepresented on the FISA court.

A FISA court’s proceedings are secret, heightening distrust, Blumenthal said. “It’s a black box.”

Blumenthal has no Republican support for his proposals. But he said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, has expressed interest in the idea of a special advocate.

Even if Blumenthal’s proposals don’t become law, they are likely to be part of Congress’ discussions about FISA courts and the NSA when lawmakers return from their August break.

Snowden’s revelations about the breadth of NSA spying has put pressure on Congress to do something -– despite White House warnings that the NSA needs its broad surveillance powers to fight terrorism.

And there’s no indication the controversy over the NSA will abate soon.

On Thursday, the New York Times, citing an unidentified intelligence officer, said the NSA is not just intercepting email communications of Americans who are in direct contact with foreigners targeted overseas, but it is also casting a far wider net for people who cite information linked to those foreigners.

“New revelations about the size and scope of the surveillance are surprising everyone,” Blumenthal said.

He also said his Connecticut constituents are contacting him in fear that their privacy rights have been violated.

The senator insisted his legislation would strike a balance between “security and liberty.”

He also said Congress should act soon since the “trust and credibility” of the NSA and other federal agencies are at risk.