WASHINGTON -- A major bill to reform the National Security Agency was introduced on Tuesday as the spy service's director defended its activities before the House Intelligence Committee.
The bipartisan legislation introduced jointly by Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) and Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) is one of the most ambitious efforts to rein in the NSA's spying powers in the wake of revelations made by former agency contractor Edward Snowden.
"It is time for serious and meaningful reforms so we can restore confidence in our intelligence community,” Leahy said in a statement. "Modest transparency and oversight provisions are not enough. We need real reform."
Leahy's partner in the House, Sensenbrenner, crafted the USA Patriot Act in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and seems to rue the expanded powers that law has since granted the NSA. His new legislation's title: the USA Freedom Act.
The bill comes at a time when the agency seems increasingly on its heels. The measure has garnered the support of allies as far-ranging as the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Rifle Association. And its introduction comes after a near-miss vote in the House this summer for an amendment that would have ended the NSA's bulk collection of Americans' phone records, and a harshly-worded statement on Monday from Senate Intelligence Chair Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), condemning spying on the United States' foreign allies.
Among other aims, the bill would end bulk phone record collection, create a civil liberties advocate for the special court that oversees intelligence gathering, and increase transparency around the scope of the NSA's activities.
Although House members once skeptical of NSA reform are increasingly supportive, Leahy and Sensenbrenner's bill faces a number of obstacles. As much was readily apparent on Tuesday, when NSA director Gen. Keith Alexander defended the agency at a House Intelligence Committee meeting.
Acknowledging that "this is a tough time for the NSA," Alexander said it was more important to "defend this country and take the beating" than to give up on programs that he claimed were critical for preventing terrorism, such as the bulk phone records collection.
Officials at the NSA have apparently been stung by a perceived lack of support from President Barack Obama's White House for their surveillance programs.
U.S. Deputy Attorney General James Cole told the House hearing that the administration was open to some reform proposals, such as creating an advocate before the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, and possibly transferring the possession of collected phone records from the NSA to telecom companies.
But Alexander and his deputy, John Inglis, are opposed to any measures that would outright end the bulk collection of phone records.
House Intelligence Chairman Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) signaled his strong support for the NSA's actions -- which means he could be headed for a showdown with the Judiciary Committee, where Sensenbrenner sits.
"This is the time for leadership in a very dangerous and chaotic world, it is not a time to apologize," Rogers said. "We know that the 9/11 road was paved with a lot of very good intentions."
A similar fight could be set up in the Senate, where despite the misgivings she expressed Monday, Feinstein went ahead Tuesday with marking up her own version of surveillance reform, which is far more modest than the Sensenbrenner-Leahy measure.