MCCRC delegation at Senator Mikulski’s office. L. to. r.: Alan Hyman, Thomas Nephew (MCCRC), Fran Pollner (Peace Action Montgomery), Sue Udry (Defending Dissent, MCCRC), Mike Mage (ACLU Montg. County)
A Montgomery County Civil Rights Coalition (MCCRC) delegation met Friday morning with staff from Senator Barbara Mikulski’s office to discuss Mikulski’s position on the ongoing NSA scandals and urge her to support real reform. The delegation included Thomas Nephew (MCCRC), Alan Hyman (a member of Progressive Neighbors), Fran Pollner (Peace Action Montgomery), Sue Udry (Defending Dissent, MCCRC), and Mike Mage (ACLU Montgomery County).
The meeting continues a series of MCCRC lobbying visits to Capitol Hill about the issue; the two prior ones were to Congressman Van Hollen, in June and again in October. Unlike with Rep. Van Hollen, we weren’t fortunate enough to meet with the Senator herself, but did engage in a wide-ranging, frank, and hopefully productive discussion with staffers Tressa Guenov (Intel. Committee) and Teri Weathers (Judiciary Committee).
Discussion centered on the legislation sponsored by Senate Intelligence Committee Dianne Feinstein’s “FISA Improvements Act” that won her committee’s approval by an 11-4 vote on Thursday. The bill is widely criticized by civil liberties and civil rights advocates (e.g., ACLU, BORDC, EFF) as a perverse reaction to the Snowden revelations that does more to ratify NSA bulk data collection than put meaningful limits on it. Most troublingly, the bill formally legalizes queries of U.S. persons’ names or email addresses without probable cause, requiring only “articulable foreign intelligence purposes.” As the ACLU’s Robyn Greene continues, “one thing is clear: [the Feinstein bill's provisions] won’t fix anything. In fact, they may even make government surveillance worse.”
To our disappointment but not surprise, Ms. Guenov confirmed that Senator Mikulski voted for the Feinstein bill, but added that the Senator had also voted for a number of amendments, including some of her own and some proposed by Senator Wyden (whose own bill is among those recommended by MCCRC). Mikulski’s amendments were about Senate confirmation of the NSA Inspector General (currently appointed by… the NSA director!), as well as a provision for an ‘institutional ‘amicus curiae‘ (friend of the court) at the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, presumably with expert-level understanding of communications technology and the law.*
Mikulski is thus aligned, so far, more with NSA-friendly damage control rather than efforts to substantively reform overly broad surveillance policies and rein in a runaway agency that has lied to her own committee. Ms. Guenov’s description of the Senator’s views — “don’t unnecessarily penalize the agency,” a Senator opposed to “radical” or “kneejerk” reforms of the system — tended to confirm the impression that the Senator sees reform efforts as a bigger problem than the agency or the authorities it claims. However, the Senator does support some transparency reforms: making constitutional rulings by FISC available to the public in redacted form, and open or more open Senate hearings.