Feinstein may suggest changes to FISA today

Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., is expected today to unveil a bill that would reform the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act at a rare public hearing where high-level intelligence officials will testify on the state of the nation’s intelligence programs.

Feinstein, a staunch defender of the National Security Agency’s sweeping metadata collection programs, is reportedly working on the bill with the committee’s vice chairman, Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga.

Based on previous statements made by Feinstein, it’s unlikely that the bill will reign in the NSA’s programs to collect the details of Americans' cell phone use, including numbers called and the length of time those calls lasted. But the proposed legislation is likely to add reporting requirements and require the agency to be more transparent with its congressional overseers, including revealing the number of times the NSA searches its huge databank of telephone data. The bill might also seek to declassify at least some opinions rendered by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, the body that passes judgment on the legality of the government's surveillance programs.

Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., added similar reporting requirements to the Defense Department appropriations bill, a move that was approved by the Senate Armed Services Committee in July, the first time a congressional committee had approved changes in the way the NSA operates since the extent of the telephone records collection program was revealed by figutive former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.

Feinstein, who's repeatedly said the program was constitutional and protected Americans' privacy, declined to comment on Durbin’s efforts when the language was first approved. But her decision to offer some sort of change to to NSA reporting requirements is recognition that Congress is unhappy with the status quo.

On Thursday, Chambliss acknowledged the need for some kind of change.

“Do we need to make changes? Sure,” he said before the hearing, though he also said he hoped it would be clear at the hearing that the surveillance programs had helped foil terror plots. “We’re going to have a joint bill. We’ve still got a couple of issues to work out, but we’re going to make some changes.”

Four high-profile senators on Wednesday announced plans for legislation of their own which would go much further in changing the way the nation's foreign intelligence law works.

The legislation, sponsored by Sens. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., Mark Udall, D-Colo., Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., and Rand Paul, R-Ky., would outlaw dragnet collection of email and telephone metadata, close a hotly-contested “backdoor search” provision of section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, and add a constitutional advocate to the secret FISA court.

The bill would also open avenues for American citizens to independently challenge the constitutionality of the nation’s intelligence programs, a provision that Wyden said Paul was instrumental in crafting.

Wyden and Blumenthal had previously teamed up on joint legislation to reform the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court in August. Wednesday’s announcement included Mark Udall, Wyden’s colleague on the Senate Intelligence Committee and fellow critic of the National Security Agency.

Schedule to appear at today's hearing are Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, NSA director Gen. Keith Alexander, and Deputy Attorney General James Cole.

Related stories from Idaho Statesman