NSA Reform: Confused Yet? Fair Enough.

Edward Snowden speaks via video conference at the SXSW Music, Film + Interactive Festival earlier this month in Austin, Texas. (Michael Buckner | Getty Images for SXSW)

Edward Snowden speaks via video conference at the SXSW Music, Film + Interactive Festival earlier this month in Austin, Texas. (Michael Buckner | Getty Images for SXSW)

Strange bedfellows is one of the most overused #ThisTown phrases, used too often to describe lawmakers and power players who align on a specific issue to fight the rest of Official Washington. So allow us to apply it to emerging efforts to reform NSA telephone surveillance programs.

First the bedfellows. President Barack Obama appears ready to leap into the policy sack with one of his fiercest critics, House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence Chairman Mike Rogers, R-Mich.

The latter, along with the panels’s top Democrat, Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger of Maryland, on Tuesday unveiled a bill that would end the NSA’s bulk collection of mobile telephone data. Obama’s White House the day before spelled out its own plan that would do the same thing.

Ruppersberger said his bill with Rogers is “very, very close” to what the White House is expected to unveil soon.

Rogers and Obama working together to push some kind of compromise NSA reform bill through the GOP-controlled House? Perhaps meeting during an upcoming Michigan State NCAA Tournament game to count votes and discuss how to secure 218 of them in the lower chamber?

Yeah, take another sip of java. We did.

Sure, Obama is, as Washington Post columnist David Ignatius once wrote, “the covert commander in chief,” and a big believer in US intelligence tools. So is Rogers.

And the NSA reform boodwah is getting crowded, to be sure. Also inside is the former Booz Allen contractor who set all of this in motion, Edward Snowden, who supports the White House plan.

In a statement, Snowden called it “a turning point, and it marks the beginning of a new effort to reclaim our rights from the NSA and restore the public’s seat at the table of government.”

Still, strange bedfellows. For. Sure.

Now for your — and our — understandable confusion.

Stakeholders on all sides of the NSA surveillance debate are giving both the White House and the “very, very” similar House Intelligence Committee plans high marks.

One of those is the American Civil Liberties Union.

In a Tuesday statement, the ACLU praised the White House’s approach — which, let me repeat is “very, very close” to the House plan.

“The president’s reported plan to end the bulk collection of phone records is a crucial first step towards reining in the NSA’s overreaching surveillance,” Michelle Richardson, ACLU legislative counsel, said in a statement. “The change would replace the dragnet surveillance of millions of innocent people with targeted methods that are both effective and respect Americans’ constitutional rights. It is critical that the administration also end other bulk collection programs.”

What’s this? Republicans, Democrats and civil liberty hawks coming to a consensus about the future of a controversial American anti-terrorism policy?


“The House Intelligence Committee, however, is on the wrong track once again. Its new bill uses reform momentum as a pretext for expanding government power,” Richardson said. “The bill’s modest improvements to the phone records program are not worth demolishing the important judicial role in overseeing these programs.”

A quick review: Obama’s coming proposal is “very, very close” to a long-negotiated House bipartisan plan. The leading civil liberties group supports the White House plan, but not the very similar House proposal.

/Deep sigh/

This raises a key question: Can *any* NSA reform bill satisfy some combination of 218 House members while also satisfying some combination of 60 senators?

The ACLU’s take on the “very, very close” White House and bipartisan House Intelligence Committee plans shows just how tough it will be get any NSA reform bill to Obama’s desk this year. And maybe ever.

John T. Bennett

John T. Bennett

Bennett is the Editor of Defense News' CongressWatch channel. He has a Masters degree in Global Security Studies from Johns Hopkins University.
John T. Bennett