- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 28, 2014

U.S. senators will grill Attorney General Eric Holder Wednesday on how his agency plans to implement the sweeping national security surveillance changes that President Obama has requested.

Mr. Holder will testify before the SenateJudiciary Committee on what the Department of Justice is doing in response to Mr. Obama’s directive earlier this month to make surveillance procedures more transparent while safeguarding national security.

Mr. Obama has said he no longer wants the government to warehouse Americans’ phone and Internet data in bulk.

He gave Mr. Holder 60 days to come back with recommendations on where the data should be held, either with phone companies or other independent third-party groups, although experts question the feasibility of the suggestion.

Meanwhile an independent government watchdog group last week declared the entire policy of collecting and storing phone records illegal and called for the program to be ended — a suggestion with which the White House disagrees. Mr. Obama maintains the legality of the program under Section 215 of the Patriot Act.

“There’s so many questions that need to be answered,” said Stephen Vladeck, professor of terrorism and surveillance law at American University. “We still need to know what position the administration is going to take on the president’s proposed reforms and how they want to implement them.”

Mr. Holder in his testimony should be able to fill in some details likely to be left out of the president’s Tuesday night speech, Mr. Vladeck said, such as who should be assigned to hold the personal data, and what defines a “true emergency” that would allow NSA agents to bypass approval by a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court judge before they scrutinize calls.

“Congress really needs to know how they can take these broad and vague proposals and turn them into policy,” Mr. Vladeck said. “Right now, things are unclear.”

Meanwhile, the American public has greeted the revelations of the NSA’s snooping with both indifference and skepticism.

According to a Pew Research Center poll, half of the U.S. public said they heard nothing at all about the president’s proposed changes to the NSA, and another 41 percent said they heard only a little bit. Of the 1 in 10 who did follow the president’s Jan. 17 speech, more than 70 percent doubted his proposals would help protect privacy.

But the issue remains a lightening rod on Capitol Hill, with senators and lawmakers on both sides of the aisle divided on whether to dismantle the program.

Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy, the Democratic chairman of the Judiciary Committee, has been pushing for reforms to curtail the power of the NSA surveillance programs and has rejected the idea that the surveillance makes Americans safer. He’s backed the independent board’s conclusion that the program is illegal and should not be included under Section 215.

However, the leaders of the House and Senate intelligence committees disagree. Rep. Mike Rogers, Michigan Republican, and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, California Democrat, maintain the program is legal and have underscored the importance of using telephone metadata to rapidly identify possible terrorist plots.

Intelligence leaks from former NSA contractor Edward Snowden last summer put a national spotlight on the government’s secret surveillance programs, prompting the Obama administration to propose reforms.

On Monday the administration loosened its gag orders on technology companies like Google, allowing them to release to the public some details on the number of information requests they’ve received from the government and how many of their customers were affected.