Whistleblower Edward Snowden’s exposés on covert mass surveillance by the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) appear to be finally giving impetus to changes in the degree of freedom allowed to the shadowy agency to snoop on Internet communications in the name of counterterrorism.
This week, an unprecedented hostility appeared to grip the U.S. Congress as it closely cross-examined “embattled” NSA chief General Keith Alexander and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper on surveillance programmes, even as a bill proposing curtailments to NSA’s powers was introduced.
In the House of Representatives, Republican Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin, also an “author of the Patriot Act,” introduced the “USA Freedom Act”, aimed at stopping both the NSA’s bulk domestic phone records collection and its searches of foreign communications databases for identifying information on Americans.
In the Senate, the NSA faced, rather unexpectedly, the loss of support from a key backer, Intelligence Committee Chairperson Dianne Feinstein.
This week Ms. Feinstein, Democrat of California, said “Unlike NSA’s collection of phone records under a court order, it is clear to me that certain surveillance activities have been in effect for more than a decade and that the Senate Intelligence Committee was not satisfactorily informed.”
She added that regarding the NSA’s collection of intelligence on leaders of U.S. allies such as France, Spain, Mexico and Germany, “Let me state unequivocally: I am totally opposed.”
The appearance that the Congress was heading toward a volte-face on NSA’s surveillance powers and on Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) Court’s functioning gained further currency from White House recently distancing itself from the controversy.
This came after German Chancellor Angela Merkel expressed dismay over allegations that the NSA had been spying on her since 2002.
White House Spokesperson Jay Carney said, “The concerns raised by our allies cause us concern too,” adding that Mr. Obama, in general, was “supportive of the idea that we need to make some reforms”, and that he hoped to “to increase the confidence that the American people have in these programmes, and to perhaps provide greater oversight and greater transparency as well as more constraints on the authorities that exist”.