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Congress Vows To Step Up To Surveillance Policy Challenge

National Security Agency Director Gen. Keith Alexander and Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., after President Obama's speech.
Charles Dharapak
National Security Agency Director Gen. Keith Alexander and Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., after President Obama's speech.

If there was a consensus emanating from Congress Friday after President Obama's NSA reform speech, it was — not surprisingly — that Congress itself has a major role to play in the ultimate fix.

Whether from strong NSA supporters or agency critics, the reactions sounded similar: Congress intends to do much of the steering in the drive to overhaul the NSA's gathering of certain non-public information, especially consumer phone records, in the nation's counterterrorism efforts.

Even so, if you listened closely, you could hear the sound of politics in some of the reaction.

For instance, Speaker John Boehner issued a statement suggesting that much of the controversy over former NSA contractor Edward Snowden's revelations of the agency's spying practices was due to Obama's failures as a communicator. The Speaker warned the president against letting politics trump national security.

"Because the president has failed to adequately explain the necessity of these programs, the privacy concerns of some Americans are understandable," Boehner's statement said. "When considering any reforms, however, keeping Americans safe must remain our top priority. When lives are stake, the president must not allow politics to cloud his judgment."

Then there was Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., a fierce libertarian opponent of the NSA's current efforts. With a nod toward Obama's broken health care promise, he skewered the president on CNN immediately after the speech.

"Well, what I think I heard was that if you like your privacy, you can keep it. But in the meantime, we're going to keep collecting your phone records, your emails, your text messages and likely, your credit card information."

Much of the congressional reaction, however, lacked any noticeable partisan jabs. New York GOP Rep. Pete King, a member of the House Intelligence Committee and a national security hawk, tweeted after the speech: "Pres Obama NSA speech better than expected. Most programs left intact. But concerned about extending US citizen privacy rights to foreigners."

What was clear was that some lawmakers expected that they — not the president — would ultimately have to resolve the NSA's controversial practices.

"Essentially, the president was stronger on principle than he was on prescription," said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., in an interview with All Things Considered co-host Audie Cornish. "But Congress is going to have to fill in a lot of the blanks. Congress is going to have to resolve the question of whether this collection should continue and who is going to keep the data and resolve these issues and try to strike a balance, obviously."

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., suggested that venerable Washington response to complicated controversies: a special congressional panel.

"The vital issues at stake here are complex, broad and cut across many areas of jurisdiction of established congressional committees, including national security, intelligence, technology, commerce, foreign affairs, and privacy. That is why I will introduce legislation to establish a Senate Select Committee to examine all of these important issues and questions," McCain said in a statement.

All of this suggests we could be headed for a big, politically-tinged separation-of-powers fight, as Obama strives to protect the executive branch's national-security prerogatives while Congress exerts its oversight powers, all during a midterm election year.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Frank James joined NPR News in April 2009 to launch the blog, "The Two-Way," with co-blogger Mark Memmott.
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