The U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence has approved the FISA Improvements Act, which includes a bipartisan amendment cosponsored by U.S. Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-VA) that ensures the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court has access to independent expertise to help the Court oversee sensitive intelligence programs while also safeguarding the Constitution's Fourth Amendment privacy protections. The panel voted 11-4 on Thursday to adopt the Act, which places limits on the use of bulk data collection by the National Security Agency [NSA] and imposes new reporting requirements on the agency's activities. The Act also requires that the NSA director and inspector general be subject to Senate confirmation.
The Warner amendment, cosponsored by Sens. Angus King (I-ME), Susan Collins (R-ME) and Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), empowers the FISA Court to appoint a friend-of-the-court lawyer, including acknowledged experts on privacy, civil liberties, intelligence collection, telecommunications, or any other area in which the Court determines it could benefit from specialized legal or technical expertise.
"We need to be able to show the American people that the NSA and others in the intelligence community can protect our national security while also providing appropriate protections for our privacy and civil liberties," Sen. Warner said. "I was pleased to work with my colleagues Senators King, Collins and Mikulski on this important amendment to provide greater accountability, improved transparency and multiple layers of oversight by the Courts, the Congress, and most importantly, respected outside groups that focus on privacy and civil liberties."
The bipartisan FISA Improvements Act increases privacy protections and public transparency of the National Security Agency call-records program in several ways, while also preserving the operational effectiveness and flexibility of the program.
"There is no question that the United States must take steps to combat terrorism and other threats to our security, especially in a day and age when intelligence gathering is often our primary weapon to prevent it," Sen. King (I-ME) said. "At the same time, the Constitution guarantees the protection of privacy, and consequently the struggle in recent years has become how to properly balance the two. By creating a process whereby the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court can turn to independent outsiders with specific expertise in areas such as privacy or telecommunications, we will take a vital step forward in ensuring the legal and technical implications of these programs are scrutinized appropriately."
"The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court is an important judicial check on the collection and use of foreign intelligence information that is unique among countries," said Sen. Collins (R-ME). "This amicus curiae will ensure that when the Court needs a second opinion on the material presented by the Executive Branch, that it has the explicit authority to secure one. This provision further strengthens the independent judicial oversight regarding requests from the Executive Branch for intelligence activities that have implications for privacy and civil liberties."
"As a United States Senator, I have two responsibilities: to protect the American people and to protect the privacy and civil liberties of American citizens as enshrined in the Constitution," Sen. Mikulski (D-MD) said. "Our provision on the amicus curiae (or friend of the court) brings a new kind of independent and informed perspective to the FISA Court. It is also an important step towards restoring greater public trust in the robustness of the FISA Court process."
"The NSA call-records program is legal and subject to extensive congressional and judicial oversight, and I believe it contributes to our national security," Intelligence Chair Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) said in a statement. "But more can and should be done to increase transparency and build public support for privacy protections in place."
Vice Chair Sen. Saxby Chambliss also backed the legislation: "As Congress has known for years, these NSA intelligence collection programs are vital to our national security and must continue," Sen. Chambliss (R-GA) said. "At the same time, the American people deserve to know that their privacy will be protected under these legal and necessary programs. This bill accomplishes our goals of increased transparency and improved privacy protections, while maintaining operational effectiveness and flexibility for the intelligence community."