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Government Shutdown Slows NSA Surveillance Reform Efforts

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NEW YORK -- After a summer of National Security Agency leaks, momentum has shifted to a debate on surveillance reform.

But reform efforts in Congress and the courts are hitting a snag: The same government shutdown that's shuttering national parks has also left the NSA and the Justice Department shorthanded, slowing down public records requests and lawsuits.

"From a transparency perspective, the government shutdown has just been horrendous," said Trevor Timm, an activist with the online rights group Electronic Frontier Foundation. "As far as we know, [surveillance] is still humming along as per usual."

Approximately 6,000 of the NSA's more than 30,000 employees have been furloughed. And the Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies, created by President Barack Obama in the wake of leaks by former government contractor Edward Snowden, has also stopped meeting and its staff have been staff furloughed.

The NSA's office of legislative affairs is still answering questions from the House and Senate Intelligence committees about surveillance, agency spokeswoman Vanee Vines told The Huffington Post. But just how quickly it's answering those questions, and declassifying documents requested by the committees, may be another matter.

The NSA's Freedom of Information Act office, meanwhile, is still processing public records requests. But it is not addressing new ones, since the NSA is following Department of Defense-wide guidance about what to put on hold until the shutdown ends. A notice on the office's website states that new requests will not be addressed "due to the government shutdown."

Staffing on the House and Senate Intelligence committees themselves, however, has apparently not been affected beyond the cuts forced by the sequester that preceded the shutdown.

“Despite the shutdown, the Committee staff is still working and functioning as it normally would," said Allison Getty, a spokesman for the House Intelligence Committee's ranking Democrat, Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger (D-Md.).

The furloughs are complicating matters for Congress, which is finally moving on legislation to respond to the NSA leaks. Bills have been introduced, or are set to be introduced shortly, from Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) and Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.).

The NSA did not respond to a request for comment on how the government shutdown has affected its response times to Congress.

Over in the courts, there are efforts to both force the NSA to open up about its activities and to stop some of them. But so many Justice Department lawyers are furloughed that the government has asked for stays in many of the court cases related to the NSA.

Tech company motions before the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to disclose broad details about government data requests have been halted. The EFF's Freedom of Information Act lawsuits to get more details about the large-scale collection of phone records has been stopped. And the American Civil Liberties Union's public records lawsuit, which focuses on the section of the Patriot Act used to justify the collection of phone records, has also been delayed.

If the shutdown spills into next week, the effects may be even broader, since the federal courts are also running out of money to operate.

"Our view is that the shutdown shouldn't be a reason to slow down these efforts at getting transparency," said Patrick Toomey, a lawyer for the ACLU. "The need for transparency is an urgent one given the debate that is occurring among the public and Congress right now, and members in Congress continue to introduce bills."

One lawsuit, however, is going forward: the EFF's push to halt the NSA's bulk collection of Americans' phone call records. A judge in that case rejected the government's request to slow down the lawsuit, replying that "all deadlines shall remain as previously set."

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