By Robert Koenig
In the 1970s when cases of secret government surveillance came to light, a Congress that had been lax in intelligence oversight leaped into action.
After a series of reports about spying on Americans, Congress set up intelligence oversight committees along with a special court to determine when domestic spying was called for.
This time around, it is unclear what Congress can and will do in the wake of disclosures about the National Security Agency's programs collecting telephone records and Internet data of millions of Americans.
Why? Because mechanisms for congressional and judicial oversight already were in place, and Congress apparently knew about the mass surveillance.
Nonetheless, some members of Congress are raising questions, and public reaction might well determine what, if anything, happens on Capitol Hill.
Missouri Sen Roy Blunt was a member until this year of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, which was set up in 1975 after the government's excesses became known. In classified briefings he was "pretty well updated" on what the NSA was up to, he said this morning.
In addition, Blunt, as a House GOP leader, was a key member of the coalition that helped rescue the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act which faced heavy opposition when it came up for re-authorization.
With that background, Blunt this morning raised questions about the substance of disclosures by NSA contractor Edward Snowden.
"One of my concerns is that when you have everything, it's almost like you don't have anything. You've got so many records that the only way you're ever actually likely to use them is in the rear-view mirror trying to reconstruct what happened after you've come up with the other facts, like the bombing in Boston," he told reporters.
"You're not going to stop anything. I can see why people are concerned, and I'm concerned, too," he said.
Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin, the Senate's No. 2 Democrat, introduced amendments over the years to prevent abuses by government agencies. In 2005, for instance, Durbin authored a provision in the Patriot Act to require individualized suspicion before surveillance can take place.
That wording was removed at the urging of then-President George W. Bush.
Durbin said that he is disturbed by the rececent revelations, but not surprised.
"It is this convergence of issues we're seeing, issues of security, privacy and technology, and each of these is moving with great force," Durbin said in an interview.
Durbin said he continues to believe in the standard of individualized suspicion -- rather than blanket surveillance -- as the standard that ought to be in place before before personal information can be obtained.
He believes that Congress needs to debate the issue but wonders how much pressure the Senate and House will receive from people growing increasingly comfortable with having details of their lives widely known.
"The obvious question is, will there will be enough concern from the public," he said.
Blunt, too, wants the issues aired-- with a focus on Obama himself and the president's recent remark about the nation had moved beyond the 9/11 terrorist threat.
"I think we have not debated this enough and frankly, on all fronts, form drone use to records collection, the Obama administration has gone further than the Bush administration," he said.
"If we've moved beyond the post-9/11 terrorist threat, why would we continue to have such an extraordinary response both in records collection and drone usage and everything else to terrorism around the world?" he asked.