POLITICS
06/12/2013 02:17 pm ET Updated Aug 12, 2013

Alan Grayson Wants To Halt NSA Collection Of Citizens' Phone, Internet Records

WASHINGTON -- Prompted by recent reports of widespread government collection of telephone and Internet records, U.S. Rep. Alan Grayson, D-Orlando, has filed legislation that would prohibit the Department of Defense, which includes the secretive National Security Agency, from spying on Americans while they were inside U.S. borders.

The move is a direct response to the revelations last week that the NSA was accessing Americans' calling records as well as U.S. Internet files -- including email and videos -- and is part of a growing debate in Congress over federal surveillance. As filed Tuesday, Grayson's one-page measure would bar NSA and other defense officials from collecting citizens' phone records and emails "without probable cause" of a terrorism or a criminal threat by an individual, according to the text.

If passed, the legislation could limit, or even shut down, a recently revealed NSA program that has allowed the agency to tap the central servers of the country's biggest Internet companies in an effort to track foreign targets. It may also affect NSA's ability to demand phone data -- such as a recent court order allowing seizure of millions of records from Verizon.

"It is completely wrong and utterly unconstitutional. It's the Big Brother state come to life," said Grayson of the programs. "The government has no right to get our email records. The government has no right to check the websites that we browse."

That Grayson has taken this position is not surprising. Before his political career, he was an attorney who targeted war profiteers. Now he's one of the loudest anti-establishment voices in the U.S. House.

But it's an open question as to how Congress will react. Unlike many issues these days, government surveillance isn't a debate that breaks cleanly along partisan lines.

Indeed, Grayson might find an unlikely ally in U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan, a conservative Republican from Longboat Key, who sharply criticized the seizure of phone records.

"The American people don't want the government snooping into their private lives," said Buchanan last week in a statement. "They deserve answers as to why this amount of information was deemed vital to national security."

Conversely, a spokesman for U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., said in a carefully worded statement that the senator backed the "lawful use of court-approved electronic surveillance to protect Americans from terrorist attacks and criminal suspects."

Nelson's Republican counterpart, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, also has been hesitant to judge.

"The threat that we face -- largely radical political Islamists -- is probably a threat that's going to exist for the rest of our lifetimes. That's just the reality," he said last week. "And so it's just a struggle to try to balance our deeply held convictions of privacy and freedoms and liberties with the need to provide for our national security."

Average Americans also are split. A Pew Research Center/Washington Post poll released Monday found 56 percent of Americans said it's acceptable for the NSA to track the calls of millions of Americans in order to investigate terrorism.

Before there's broad debate on Grayson's measure, it first must pass a parliamentary test. Grayson wants to attach it as an amendment to a broader defense bill, so the House rules committee must decide -- likely today -- whether it is "germane" to the debate.

Four Floridians sit on that committee: Democrat Alcee Hastings and Republicans Dan Webster, Rich Nugent and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen.

Even if Grayson is rejected by the rules committee, Congress appears primed for a privacy debate. On Tuesday, a bipartisan group of senators introduced legislation that would bring greater transparency to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which rules on snooping warrants related to national security.

The measure would declassify many of the court's opinions.

A bill proposed by U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., would prohibit searches of American phone records by any U.S. agency "without a warrant based on probable cause."

Grayson said he would back similar legislation in the House, adding that the surveillance programs are "fundamentally inconsistent with what America is all about."

mkmatthews@tribune.com or 202-824-8222

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