How much should the U.S. government be allowed to spy on its citizens? Under what circumstances? With what safeguards? And how much should and can be made public?
Some of the most outspoken congressional critics — and most vocal backers — of such government surveillance programs were due at the White House on Thursday to discuss overhauling the way a secret court approves such activities.
President Barack Obama “will meet with a group of bipartisan members of Congress to discuss key programs under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act,” his press office announced Wednesday. “This meeting will be closed press.”
The list of invited lawmakers includes Democratic Sens. Ron Wyden of Oregon and Mark Udall of Colorado, who have fought to give the public more information about government espionage programs — notably those that can target Americans.
The group also includes the top members of the intelligence committees of the Senate and House of Representatives — Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., as well as Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., and Dutch Ruppersberger, D-Md. The No. 2 Senate Democrat, Dick Durbin, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., and Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., a key author of the Patriot Act, will also attend.
“Today, at the president’s request, he will meet with a group of bipartisan members to discuss key programs under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act,” a White House official said. “The president believes it is important to hear from the Congress directly, including from some of the programs’ most prominent critics.”
The meeting comes amid an unprecedented congressional rebellion against government espionage, notably the bulk collection of Americans’ telephone records and monitoring their activities online.
“It's clear that the sentiment is growing for oversight,” Durbin told ABC News on Sunday. “The notion that we're going to collect all of the phone records of everyone in an area code on the off chance someone in that area code may be a suspect at a later time goes way too far.”
Durbin also pushed for overhauling the FISA court process for spying on American citizens. Currently, its proceedings are secret, and only the government is represented before the judge, resulting in a de facto rubber stamp for surveillance requests.
“Let's have an advocate for someone standing up for civil liberties to speak up about the privacy of Americans when they make each of these decisions,” Durbin told ABC. “And let's release some of the transcripts, redacted, carefully redacted, so that people understand the debate that's going on in these FISA courts.”
Obama has said he welcomes the debate — but the discussion was forced on the White House by the revelations of former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden.
Still, his administration has been working with lawmakers to overhaul the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) law that undergirds the entire war on terrorism.
Critics say the law, passed shortly after the 9/11 terror attacks, is outdated and overbroad.
Civil liberties champions are watching closely for fear Congress and the White House could actually expand, rather than curtail, sweeping government powers.