Even before the curtain was pulled back on the National Security Agency (NSA) wiretapping scandal last week, Sen. Mark Udall (D-CO) had been fighting in Congress to end the secrecy that defined the federal government’s program to collect the phone and online records of millions of Americans.
For months, Udall sought to put an end to the secret program. In 2011 and 2012 he and Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) drafted letters to Attorney General Eric Holder expressing concern that the public was being misled about the government’s authority to eavesdrop on private communications, and in interviews he said that he was doing “everything but leak classified information” to try and end the practice. Udall appeared on multiple Sunday talk shows to explain why he believes the program should receive an open public debate.
“The fact that every call I make to my friends, my family is noted, where I am, the length of it, the date, that concerns me particularly because Americans didn’t know this,” said Udall on Sunday morning. “That’s why I’m calling for a reopening of the PATRIOT Act, I’m calling for a fulsome debate across the country. Maybe Americans think this is okay, but I think the line has been drawn too far towards we’re going to invade your privacy versus we’re going to respect your privacy.”
Udall is certainly not alone in his criticism. Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) told Fox News on Sunday that he intends to pursue a class action lawsuit before the Supreme Court to challenge the legality of the surveillance program.
While Udall reserved the brunt of his criticism for the decision by the intelligence community to keep the surveillance program a secret rather than criticize the program itself — later on Sunday he actually defended the PRISM program that monitors communications overseas, and doesn’t log all metadata — he did question the effectiveness of collecting billions of phone records made by Americans.
“It hasn’t been proven that it works,” he told CNN host Candy Crowley. “It’s unclear to me we’ve developed any intelligence through the metadata program that’s led to the disruption of plots that could have been attained through other means.”
The disclosure of the NSA program has touched off a fierce debate in Congress, one that has the rare hallmark of bipartisanship. While Udall and Paul have been vocal critics of the program, Democrats like Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Republicans like Rep. Mike Rogers (MI) have defended the program as a necessary tool in the fight against terrorism. Rogers told Politico last week that the NSA surveillance program had already successfully thwarted at least one terrorist attack but couldn’t elaborate as the information is still classified. Proponents of the program also point out that every member of Congress could have been briefed on the program if they chose to.