N.D. delegation wary of NSA surveillance: Hoeven, Cramer support reform; Heitkamp seeks ‘balance’
GRAND FORKS -- In light of repeated revelations over the past six months about the federal government’s surveillance activities, some members of North Dakota’s congressional delegation said they favor reform.
But what kind of changes may come to fruition remains unknown.
Through Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor, British newspaper The Guardian and The Washington Post, among other outlets, have revealed details of federal agencies’ surveillance programs that some argue threaten civil liberties.
One program reportedly allows the federal government to gather bulk phone records of millions of U.S. citizens. Another is PRISM, in which the NSA accesses the communications of users of the most popular technology companies, although the Obama administration has argued that program is focused on non-U.S. citizens and information is obtained through a court order.
“I have concerns about both programs,” said Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D. “I think we need to do more to make sure that privacy rights are protected.”
Hoeven, the longest-serving member of the current North Dakota congressional delegation, voted in 2011 to extend the Patriot Act. The law, which was enacted after the Sept. 11 attacks in an effort to combat terrorism, includes a provision that officials have used as a legal justification for gathering phone records, according to the Council on Foreign Relations.
That provision, formally known as Section 215, allows federal agencies to collect “any tangible things” that are relevant to a national security investigation, according to the council. Intelligence officials have said the content of phone calls aren’t being monitored, but metadata is being acquired instead.
“That metadata includes numbers dialed, numbers of incoming calls, times of the calls, and routing information,” according to a fact sheet on the website of Rep. Justin Amash, R-Mich., who authored an amendment this year to curtail the program.
But Hoeven said he was unaware of the extent of the surveillance programs that have been revealed over the past year. He also voted in 2012 to reauthorize the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act in 2012, which intelligence officials have used as legal justification for PRISM.
“I was aware that we were doing surveillance,” said Hoeven, who is not a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee. “But I had not been briefed on the level and the detail of these programs.”
Both Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, a Democrat, and Republican Rep. Kevin Cramer were sworn into office earlier this year, and haven’t voted on either the Patriot Act or the FISA reauthorization.
But Cramer did vote for Amash’s amendment to a defense bill in July that would have curtailed the NSA’s metadata collection program. The amendment failed by a slim margin.
Cramer called the NSA’s phone data collection program “an overreach of what I believe the Patriot Act really is.” He said that belief comes from Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., an original co-author of the Patriot Act, and now an author of a bill that would end bulk collection of data.
“I’m in definite support of reform,” Cramer said. “In my mind, I do believe the NSA needs to be scaled back a bit in terms of its metadata collection.”
Heitkamp’s office said she wasn’t available for several interview requests last week, and did not explain what reform efforts she may support. In an emailed statement, she called for balance between national security and privacy.
“We, as American citizens, should continually ask questions about government surveillance and make sure it strikes this needed balance,” she said. “The revelations about NSA’s intelligence gathering programs reinforce that there should be an ongoing discussion.”
Hoeven said there needs to be an “ongoing review” of surveillance programs to ensure proper safeguards are in place. He added that lawmakers are trying to add more checks and balances to the process.
“In a way where... we protect our citizens and our country from terroristic threats, but also privacy rights,” Hoeven said.