Our conversation with Senator Mark Udall over the NSA surveillance controversy

Mark Udall
Mark Udall

Sen. Mark Udall, along with Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden, has been advocating scaling back the ability the government has to collect phone data from millions of Americans for security purposes and calling for more government transparency.

“It may be more convenient for the NSA to collect this data in bulk, rather than directing specific queries to the various phone companies, but in our judgment convenience alone does not justify the collection of the personal information of huge numbers of ordinary Americans if the same or more information can be obtained using less intrusive methods,” said Udall and Wyden in a joint statement from June 19. Government officials defend the collection programs stating only metadata, and not actual conversations, are being collected. The Wall Street Journal reported that officials have stated they have only reviewed a fraction of one percent of the collected data. Following is an unedited email interview conducted with Sen. Udall regarding the NSA and collection programs:

PULP: Sen. Dianne Feinstein has defended the policies in question saying they have worked. One example she gives is the Zazi case from 2009. Are her claims sound, especially since we’ve experienced mass shootings and the Boston bombings?

Senator Udall: The NSA has said publicly that collection under FISA Section 702 (also known as the PRISM program) was critical to the disruption of the Zazi threat against the U.S.,
and I agree. General Alexander testified to that publicly this past week. I continue to believe that the PRISM program is valuable. But to reiterate, it has not been demonstrated to me that the PATRIOT Act phone call-data collection (Section 215) has produced uniquely important intelligence that has led to thwarting of plots.

PULP: You recently told Colorado Public Radio that you’re more focused on the 215 program rather than the 702 program because it has been successful, can you explain what makes the 702 program successful?

Udall: I agree with Director Clapper and General Alexander that the intelligence collected under this program is valuable and effective. It is targeted at foreign persons
located outside the United States. Despite this fact, Congress must continue to exercise close oversight of this program to ensure that the communications of Americans that are collected incidentally as part of this program are protected. As a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, I strongly believe there are ways to improve the balance between privacy and our national security in how the program is conducted.

PULP: Where do you believe America should go from here?

Udall: Congress should immediately reopen the PATRIOT Act, so we can have a fulsome debate about government surveillance programs, Americans’ privacy rights and the limits of executive power. I also strongly believe we need to pass the legislation I introduced with Sen. Ron Wyden that would limit the federal government’s ability to collect data on Americans’ phone calls without a
demonstrated link to terrorism or espionage. Although I strongly believe some authorities under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act provide valuable information that helps protect our national security, Americans with no link to terrorism or espionage should not have to worry that their private information is being swept up.

I also support legislation to ensure that FISA Court opinions are responsibly revealed to the American people, so they can have a better understanding of how the PATRIOT Act’s business records provision and other provisions under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act are being

PULP: In the interview with Colorado Public Radio, you said you didn’t necessarily agree with Mr. Snowden’s disclosures. How else should American’s learn of these events?

Udall: As a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, I swore an oath to protect our nation’s secrets even as I work hard to exercise strong oversight over the intelligence community. Let me be clear: I abhor leaks and am never glad when our national security is potentially compromised. It shouldn’t take leaks for Congress to be motivated to seek a better balance between our privacy and our security. But if Americans don’t even know where the line is being drawn between privacy and security because the laws on the books are being secretly interpreted, they won’t know to call on their elected representatives to adjust the balance – which is why I have fought for such interpretations to be declassified. The administration should have been more upfront with the American people, both about its secret interpretations of our intelligence laws and about the extent of its surveillance programs.

That also is why I am fighting to pass legislation to narrow the PATRIOT Act to ensure that Americans know they cannot be surveilled unless there is a clear link to terrorism or espionage.

PULP: Can you tell us what actions you took in congress when you were first briefed on the information the NSA was gathering?

Udall: I publicly opposed the long-term extensions of the PATRIOT Act in 2011 and the FISA Amendments Act in 2012. During debates on those bills, I spoke out publicly and offered amendments to address my concerns about “secret interpretations” of the PATRIOT Act and an overly broad reach of Section 215, as well as amendments to improve the Section 702 program under FISA. I also have repeatedly pushed this administration to be clear with the American people about how the federal government is interpreting and using its surveillance powers. Given the classified nature of the programs we were debating, I could not expose information that could have revealed operational details about these programs. I am still limited in what I can say about these programs to the information that the NSA and the Director of National Intelligence has declassified over the last few weeks. However, these have been longtime concerns of mine that I have done everything in my power to highlight — short of disclosing classified information.

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