January 19

Washington Notebook: Maine's senators differ on NSA metadata storage

As members of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Susan Collins and Angus King will play a role in shaping any reforms to the nation’s spying tactics.

By Kevin Miller kmiller@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — With U.S. Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King holding two of the 15 seats on the Senate Intelligence Committee, Maine’s senators will play a role in shaping any congressional reforms to the nation’s spying tactics.

click image to enlarge

Sen. Angus King and Sen. Susan Collins

2012 File Photo/The Associated Press

The two senators’ reactions to President Obama’s speech Friday on the National Security Agency show that while they agree on some potential steps as well as the need for a broad intelligence-gathering effort, there are also nuances between the two on a few critical issues.

One notable difference is over who should hold on to the so-called “metadata,” the massive troves of phone records compiled by the NSA. Obama on Friday directed officials to explore having phone companies or even a new entity maintain the metadata and then give the NSA access to specific records.

Collins said Obama’s decision on who holds the metadata “requires considerable scrutiny,” but she voiced skepticism of the plan.

“Having the telephone companies or other non-governmental entities responsible for holding this information might well make it far less private and secure than it is currently,” Collins said in a statement.

King has, in the past, been an advocate for such an arrangement.

“The principle should be don’t put too much power in the hands of the government because it can and probably at some point will be abused,” King told MSNBC back in June. “It makes me nervous that all of those phone records are in the possession of the [NSA].”

But King was also the author of what he said was a compromise on the issue that would require authorities to log every time the government accesses the metadata and file quarterly reports with Congress detailing those incidents. The Senate Intelligence Committee unanimously endorsed that amendment.

King is slated to discuss the NSA reforms on Sunday on CNN’s “State of the Union” program with Candy Crowley.

Obama’s list of recommended legislative changes also included something similar to what Maine’s two senators proposed late last year.

Working with Sens. Mark Warner of Virginia and Barbara Mikulski of Maryland, King and Collins successfully added language to a bill to allow the super-secret Federal Intelligence Surveillance Court to consult with approved outside experts when dealing with new or complicated legal questions. Obama called for the creation of a panel to serve as public advocates for the court.

One other thing worth noting:

Although Collins is widely viewed as a safe bet for re-election in 2014 – with strong approval ratings even among Democrats and independents – her Democratic opponent, Shenna Bellows, plans to make the NSA and its sweeping information-gathering programs a major focus of her campaign.

Civil liberties issues often make strange political bed fellows, bringing together far-left liberals, tea party Republicans and hardcore libertarians outraged by what they see as dangerous government infringement on private lives.

As the former executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, Bellows is obviously hoping that she can peel off enough of those disenfranchised tea partiers and libertarians to boost her numbers.

Whether Bellows will be able to make a large dent in Collins’ armor remains to be seen. On Friday, she said Obama’s proposal “falls short of real reform.”

“I’m running for United States Senate to stand up against the Washington pattern of sacrificing our liberties for a false sense of security,” Bellows said in a statement. “We need to stop dragnet surveillance and restore our constitutional freedoms to protect individual liberties and restore trust in our government again.”

OTHER TIDBITS IN THE BUDGET BILL

Following are a few other items potentially of interest to Mainers that were included in the massive spending bill approved by Congress last week but didn’t get much attention:

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