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And I'm Linda Wertheimer. The recent leaks revealing the extent of the National Security Agency surveillance programs came as news to many people. But some members of Congress have been warning for years that such surveillance could threaten the privacy of average Americans.
NPR's Larry Abramson reports that in the end, it was Congress that decided not to disclose details about these programs to the public.
LARRY ABRAMSON, BYLINE: If you were shocked by extent of the NSA's surveillance programs, you just don't watch enough C-SPAN. That's right - you should have been watching last December, when Congress debated amendments to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. You could have heard Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden talking about colonial America's experience with broad searches of property, in the effort to find wrongdoing.
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SEN. RON WYDEN: The colonists said it's just not OK to go around invading people's privacy unless you've got some specific evidence that they've done something wrong.
ABRAMSON: Wyden was warning that the law Congress was amending could allow the government to scoop up communications from U.S. citizens, as long as the target of the investigation is a terrorist or a foreign spy. That's the purpose of one of the programs revealed in media reports last week.
While Wyden was talking, he knew the NSA program had already been up and running because he's a member of the Intelligence Committee, which is briefed on this stuff. But he wasn't allowed to talk about it, so he could only warn about potential loopholes in the law.
WYDEN: With no requirement that the senders or recipients be connected to terrorism, espionage - the threats that we are concerned about.
ABRAMSON: Wyden lost his fight for additional safeguards. Steven Aftergood, of the Federation of American Scientists, says Wyden and others just wanted some basic information about NSA surveillance.
STEVEN AFTERGOOD: How many people are being surveilled? What kind of authorities are being invoked? What is the impact on Americans' privacy?
ABRAMSON: But Senate Intelligence Chairman Dianne Feinstein wrote, at the time, that the intelligence community believes it's just not feasible to identify, say, how many average Americans had their emails swept up in the search for terrorists. Instead, Aftergood says, the committee approved a complicated system of oversight. It requires notifying the committee and a special surveillance court, both of which meet behind closed doors.
AFTERGOOD: But the degree of public reporting, and public accountability, is so minimal that the disclosures of the past week came as a shock, even to people who thought they understood what was going on.
ABRAMSON: Now, from the point of view of the National Security Agency, the surveillance of data traffic, still under way right now, is heavily regulated by all those layers that Congress did approve. In a speech in February, NSA general counsel Rajesh De said the law requires the agency to ignore information accidentally gathered on Americans. He said Congress prohibits the agency from monitoring U.S. citizens under almost any circumstance - almost.
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RAJESH DE: Significantly, FISA provides that the dissemination of information about U.S. persons is expressly prohibited, unless necessary to understand foreign intelligence or assess its importance, is evidence of a crime, or indicates a threat of death or serious bodily injury.
ABRAMSON: Note there are clear exceptions that could lead the agency to use information gleaned about U.S. persons. And the NSA has also admitted many people are accidentally swept up by its broom.
During his three decades at NSA, Kirk Wiebe built a program that would protect information about U.S. persons by scrambling it, using special encryption software.
KIRK WIEBE: So that if a bit of data that was suspected to be U.S. was immediately encrypted, I just think we have, as the government, a sacred obligation to protect the identities of the innocent until we meet the criteria of probable cause.
ABRAMSON: Wiebe hopes the revelations about NSA activity will lead to legal requirements for encryption protections, and for more disclosure about what U.S. spy agencies are up to. But now that the public knows some of what's going on, people may also decide the government should simply be trusted with all this information.
Larry Abramson, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.