AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut has been an outspoken privacy advocate and critic of some of NSA surveillance programs. Of the government's privacy safeguards, he said, the process is broken largely because it depends on a secret court making secret decisions and secret law.
I spoke with Senator Blumenthal earlier today, and he said he was encouraged by the president's plan, which he called bold. I started by asking the senator what he thought of new recommendations to make the nation's surveillance court more transparent.
SENATOR RICHARD BLUMENTHAL: The president very directly responded to criticisms that I and others have made about the secrecy of the court and also its lack of sufficient adversarial process. First of all, he said that there should be more rulings and opinions made public. And, second, he adopted the proposal that I have made and urged that there be a privacy advocate, for lack of a better term, a public interest advocate. Now, he did not go as far as I would like, and I'm going to continue to advocate a more independent, full-time, robust privacy advocate. But he certainly is going in the right direction.
CORNISH: On the issue of an advocate on the court for the public, this would be a panel of outside advocates that the president says would provide an independent voice in significant cases before the court. What kind of details are important here in terms of when the panel can weigh in? Can they actually argue before the court? What would you like to see?
BLUMENTHAL: This advocate should be empowered to make arguments before the court when she thinks it's important. In other words, the court shouldn't be the one to solely determine that there's a need for adversarial give and take. Courts always do better when they hear both sides of an argument, and the advocate should be empowered to review the docket so that there's no delay in protecting against terrorist attack or providing for sufficient intelligence. But there should be a full-time advocate that is empowered to protect privacy and be a representative for people whose privacy may be imperiled.
CORNISH: Meanwhile, when it comes to the portion of the law that allows for bulk collection and retention of phone records, the president clearly defended it, saying he sees no indication that the database has been intentionally abused. But I'm curious to get your reaction to two changes he did prescribe. First, that the metadata collected, that it not be stored by the government but by some third party to be figured out at a later time. Is that a step forward?
BLUMENTHAL: To be figured out at a later time certainly leaves a lot of the key details up in the air. And this issue is intensely and urgently serious. Who collects, in effect stores or keeps the data, whether it could be vulnerable to improper use, Congress is going to have to resolve the question of whether this collection should continue and who is going to keep the data. And the bill that we have would greatly restrict and constrict the collection of this kind of data.
CORNISH: Now, the president also said that this metadata, that these phone records would not be searchable without court approval unless in case of an emergency. Is that enough for you?
BLUMENTHAL: That's a very, very powerful point. Remember that the criminal process operates in a way that protects individual rights and liberties because courts are involved, which is why I think the court process is so important. And requiring specific court approval by an independent judicial officer, I think, is a big step in the right direction. Whether it's sufficient, again, will depend on the details.
CORNISH: Now, the leaders of both the House and Senate intelligence committees, Republicans and Democrats, have also defended these programs as legal and valuable national security tools. And there really doesn't seem to be a support - any signs of support from leadership in the House and Senate to bring these reform bills to the floor. Is Congress a dead end for these changes?
BLUMENTHAL: Congress cannot be a dead end. Congress must be a source of enabling and empowering reform. The president...
CORNISH: But does it feel like it? I mean, there's a lot of advocates who tell us they want change. But then when I see the committee panels doing votes, we're not seeing those changes make it.
BLUMENTHAL: I think, having spoken to a number of my colleagues after the president's address, that there is an appetite to reach these fundamental issues, to strike a balance, protect privacy and at the same time prevent government overreach in collecting telephone data or other surveillance. And we recognize that we need to come forward and make the next step.
CORNISH: Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, thanks so much for speaking with us.
BLUMENTHAL: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.