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.
Among points made and questions raised by our delegation:
- Mike Mage (ACLU Montgomery County) delivered the most detailed endorsement of the recently introduced Leahy-Sensenbrenner bill, particularly approving of its insistence on particularized suspicion rather than bulk collection under PATRIOT Act authorities.
- Fran Pollner raised the issue of access by other Members of Congress to Intelligence Committee documents and hearings. We were told that all Members actually have access, but that some Members “don’t do their homework”; however, staff conceded that there often isn’t staff-level access given the secrecy classifications of some materials. None of the bills currently before Congress address that issue.
- Sue Udry expressed disappointment with Mikulski’s support of the Feinstein bill, noting concerns that it ratifies much bulk data collection and is all too specific in limiting only certain kinds of mass surveillance — implicitly okaying others.
- Thomas Nephew said he felt it was important to send the message that both the PATRIOT Act and the FISA Amendment Act were failures that were best flatly repealed (as a bill by Rush Holt would do); failing that, he hoped the Senator would co-sponsor the Sensenbrenner-Leahy bill. Also , reacting to the statement that Senator Mikulski opposes “radical” reforms, he noted: “The Fourth Amendment isn’t a radical idea.”
Despite Mikulski’s support for the Feinstein bill, there were a few encouraging aspects to the meeting. First, we were urged to stay in touch and provide detailed pros and cons of the Sensenbrenner-Leahy, Feinstein and other bills. We’ll do so and will be updating our NSA legislative overview.
More broadly, Ms. Guenov reported that she’d rarely seen a more emotional, engaged, yet productive debate among Senators than the one she’s seeing now regarding NSA surveillance: the issue is being taken seriously, by both Democrats and Republicans. While she can’t predict when any bill will come to a vote, her perception is that the process is moving “relatively fast.”
The video below shows some reactions by delegation members to the meeting.
* My notes indicate Ms. Guenov also mentioned Senate confirmation of the NSA director as a Mikulski amendment, but I may be mistaken in that, since this was among the features of the bill that Feinstein announced on September 26. UPDATE, 11/3: another delegate’s notes agree with mine, so it may be that this was a feature or amendment proposed by Mikulski on or before 9/26, rather than on or around 10/31.