Why Bob Corker sees trouble ahead for bill reforming NSA surveillance

Sen. Bob Corker says he was 'shocked' to learn at a classified briefing Tuesday how little data the NSA is actually collecting. That revelation could be a game changer in the Senate, he says.

Michael Bonfigli/The Christian Science Monitor
Sen. Bob Corker (R) of Tennessee speaks at a Monitor Breakfast on Wednesday, May 13, 2015, in Washington, D.C.

A bill that reforms the federal government’s controversial surveillance program that collects Americans’ phone records is expected to comfortably pass the House on Wednesday. But a “potential game changer” that would increase Senate opposition to the bill may have just been triggered, said Sen. Bob Corker (R) of Tennessee, at a Monitor breakfast on Wednesday.

Senator Corker, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said he was “shocked” to learn at a classified briefing for all senators on Tuesday how little data the government is actually collecting, given the terrorism challenges faced by the United States. He said it amounts to near “malpractice” on the part of the government.

“I think there was an ‘aha’ moment yesterday for people on both sides of the aisle when we realized how little data is being collected,“ said the senator, referring to the briefing by US government officials, including the directors of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and National Security Agency.

"The program is actually not the program that I thought it was, not even close,” he said. He could not go into detail because the briefing was classified.

As a result of the briefing, he expects “multiple inquires” to be made by Republican and Democratic senators, and perhaps for things to eventually move in the opposite direction – a ramping up of the surveillance program so it is “more encompassing.” In the near-term, more senators may be interested in a short extension of the program, “as people get a grip on what is not happening.”

The program, revealed by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden in 2013, has its basis in Section 215 of the Patriot Act – a section that expires at the end of this month. The Obama administration used the act to justify its metadata program – the mass collection of calls made, the phone numbers involved, and their duration, though not their content.

A federal appeals court in New York ruled last week that the program is illegal.

The House bill, called the USA Freedom Act, enjoys widespread, bipartisan support in that chamber. It would allow for the continuation of data collection, but the data would be stored by private phone companies, and not by the NSA. The government could still access the information, but it would need a warrant.

In the Senate, the bill faces a hurdle in the form of Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky, who wants simply to extend Section 215 as is – though the court ruling complicates that position. He has argued strenuously that the reforms in the USA Freedom Act would hamper government officials who are trying to catch potential terrorists and head off terrorist attacks.

On Wednesday, Corker decried the “unhealthy libertarian bent” that arose in the wake of Mr. Snowden’s revelations, and he said that “myths” have built up because the surveillance program has not been sufficiently explained to Americans. 

“I think you’re going to see people on both sides of the aisle now pushing in a different direction, wondering why not more data is part of the database ... to protect our citizens.”

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