As President Obama weighs changes to the National Security Agency's controversial surveillance practices, vocal Democratic critics of the programs pressed the White House on Friday to end the sweeping spying dragnet and restore public trust in the nation's intelligence agencies.
Sens. Ron Wyden, Mark Udall and Martin Heinrich – all members of the Intelligence Committee – sent a letter to Obama urging him to adopt many of the recommendations of his own surveillance review group.
The group’s report called for Obama to end the program that collects phone-call data of nearly all Americans and to close a loophole that allows for warrantless searches of the content of phone calls and emails of Americans in the course of collecting foreign communications.
The trio also urged Obama to create a privacy advocate on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, a secretive body that responds to NSA and FBI requests for surveillance warrants. The suggested changes mirror several provisions in bills the senators have written over the last six months.
"Mr. President, we agree with your recent comment that ‘Just because we can do something doesn't mean we necessarily should,'” they wrote. “While it might be more convenient for the NSA to collect phone records in bulk rather than directing individual queries to the various phone companies, convenience alone does not justify the collection of the personal information of millions of ordinary, innocent Americans, especially when the same or more information can be obtained in a timely manner using less intrusive methods.”
The senators said they believed Obama has the authority as president to order the changes and urged him to do so “with reasonable haste to protect both our national security and the personal rights and liberties of U.S. citizens.”
The letter comes one day after Obama met privately with the trio of senators, along with other key supporters and critics of the NSA in Congress, including the chairmen and ranking members of the House and Senate Intelligence and Judiciary Committees.
After that meeting, Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., told reporters he thinks Obama believes he can use his power as president to reform the surveillance programs and doesn't need Congress to pass legislation.
Sensenbrenner is the original author of the law known as the Patriot Act that expanded government spying capabilities after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. The former chairman of the House Judiciary Committee says the federal government took the Patriot Act too far and blames Congress for falling down on its job of overseeing the NSA. He has authored a bill to overhaul the spying programs.
A presidential task force released 46 recommended changes to the surveillance policies in December, and Obama has said he would review them and respond in January.
Obama is readying a revamp of the NSA's surveillance programs, and is expected to announce the changes before his Jan. 28 State of the Union address. The announcement could come as early as next week.
The extent of the government's spying program has fueled a national debate over the last six months, ever since NSA leaker Edward Snowden started disclosing details of the programs to media outlets.
Civil-liberties advocates across the political spectrum have assailed the program as a violation of constitutional privacy rights while intelligence and law-enforcement leaders have said the program is responsible for thwarting several terrorist attacks and keeping the country safe.