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Democratic Bill Would Limit Government's Digital Surveillance


Two Democratic Senators have proposed a bill that would limit the government's collection of information about our phone calls, emails and texts. Senator Mark Udall of Colorado joins us now. He and Ron Wyden of Oregon are the main sponsors. Thank you for joining us, Senator.

SENATOR MARK UDALL: Robert, great to be on with you. This is an important topic.

SIEGEL: President Obama spoke about it today. He said that the U.S. government is not rifling through the emails of ordinary people and the defense that we've heard of the two big NSA programs is huge amounts of data are collected, very little is examined and only with a court's approval. What problem do you see that Mr. Obama and others don't see?

UDALL: I think we should err on the side of protecting Americans' privacy. We ought to focus on terrorists and not ordinary Americans. And Senator Wyden and I have introduced a bill that would do just that. I would like to add that there are two programs that are being discussed in some depth in the public square today. One is the so-called 702 program, which surveils foreign operatives and looks, actually, at the content of their emails, their video posts and the like.

And then, there's the 215 program, which is literally collecting tens and hundreds of millions of Americans' phone records. 702 has been effective. 215 has not been demonstrated to me to be worth the cost to Americans' privacy.

SIEGEL: Well, let's first talk about the cost to Americans' privacy. The argument in defense of that colossal amount of data that's collected is that it isn't even data, they say, it's metadata and nobody knows anything about anyone from that huge haystack. Only once you start looking at it do we see what's in there.

UDALL: Well, with all due respect, I disagree. If someone is charting what calls I make, from where I make those calls, to whom I make those calls, at what time I make those calls, that to me is private information. I ought to know that that data is being collected. And I still hear the intelligence community, of whom I have great respect, asking us just to blindly trust their assurances that everything's hunky-dory.

SIEGEL: They keep on saying to the contrary. They say, we are overseen very closely by the FISA courts and also by the committees of the Congress. And very few people have access to the information contained in that haystack of so-called metadata. They say, this is a very carefully controlled program.

UDALL: Well, I welcome the debate again. The FISA court plays an important role. But the FISA court, in effect, issues a warrant, one warrant, for millions of pieces of information to be collected in the interest of national security. If Americans agree that's a good idea, I can certainly respect that. But Americans haven't had a chance to understand this is what's been occurring.

I just want to underline that it hasn't been demonstrated to me that the collection of tens of millions of phone records have resulted in uniquely valuable intelligence.

SIEGEL: Well, the argument that's made is that in the case of the so-called Zazi plot, the man who was planning to plant bombs in the New York subways, that his involvement in that and his communications with people overseas were cracked by this very kind of data-gathering, by this targeted examination of his communications.

UDALL: If you study what's been reported on Zazi, it was the 702 program that identified his intent. It has not been proven to me and demonstrated to me that the 215 provisions were key to determining what he intended to do.

SIEGEL: If intelligence were to pick up on communications between someone in Yemen and someone in the United States and there's reason to suspect that there might be a link, could investigators then go to the FISA court under your bill and say, we want the phone records of all the people communicating with that number in Yemen and perhaps all the people communicating with those people to see if we find some links here.

UDALL: That's exactly how it would work. You would get a warrant and then you could go two legs out from that individual. And that's exactly what we're trying to do is limit the reach of this data collection to those who have a nexus to terrorism or espionage.

SIEGEL: Can you articulate some change in what we call the war on terror that you could say that would be the sunset provision? When we achieve that - or perhaps you feel we've achieved that already - we can let this program lapse because the threat can now be described as follows. If you had to fill in those blanks, what would you say?

UDALL: Yeah, I would say number one, we ought to have sunset provisions always in these kinds of provisions. And I would say in the answer to your question, when we relegate the war on terror to the same kind of approach that we direct to organized crime and those who move drugs, who traffic in human beings - some of these other terrible crimes that are committed - that's where I think we could begin to change the way in which we surveil.

SIEGEL: When there are more conventional villains, you're saying...

UDALL: Yeah, exact. Yes.

SIEGEL: ...and we could treat them in the same way that we treat those other organizations.

UDALL: Yeah, the front is everywhere. The front surrounds us but that doesn't mean that we give up what I think is the strongest weapon we have, which is the Bill of Rights. It's why the world looks to us. It's why they understand that the combination of freedom and opportunity in America is like nowhere else, and it's tied directly to the Bill of Rights. And we give up our privacy, which is an ultimate form of freedom, I think reluctantly at best.

SIEGEL: Senator Mark Udall, Democrat of Colorado, thank you very much for talking with us today.

UDALL: Robert, thank you. Take care. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.