Congress relishes greater role in NSA reforms

WASHINGTON (AFP) - US lawmakers were poised on Friday to seize a chance to take the initiative in reforming America's vast digital surveillance network, after President Barack Obama opened the door to them.

Under pressure after fugitive intelligence contractor Edward Snowden leaked details of National Security Agency's global dragnet, Mr Obama promised new privacy safeguards on Friday.

But members of Congress will also now be drawn in to oversee the roll-out of broader reforms aimed at regulating the government's data gathering powers and protecting US citizens' private calls.

"Now is the time for Congress to improve how it executes its constitutional oversight duties," Senator John McCain said, adding that a Senate select committee would examine the efforts.

Congressional reaction to Mr Obama's speech on the NSA's powers twas mixed, but many voiced approval for the president's intent to reform controversial surveillance programmes.

"The president's blueprint was bold and courageous, but it was only a first step," Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal told reporters.

With no specific plan for replacing the NSA system of data-mining vast troves of intercepted online and telephone data with a less indiscriminate palatable option, the president said he was "open to working with Congress" on how to move forward.

"I think he is really in essence passing the torch of reform, providing a broad blueprint which is very robust, but leaving a lot of the details to Congress," Mr Blumenthal said.

Senator Ron Wyden, perhaps Capitol Hill's top opponent of warrantless surveillance, called Mr Obama's reforms a milestone and "vindication" of the Oregon Democrat's longstanding efforts.

"The groundswell of public support that has built for these reforms over the past several months shows that the American public shares our view of the importance of reining in overbroad and unnecessary surveillance powers," Mr Wyden said.

Mr Wyden is among lawmakers introducing legislation rolling back or eliminating NSA bulk data gathering, along with House Republican Jim Sensenbrenner, architect of the post-9/11 Patriot Act.

"Some of (Obama's) proposals I agree with, others I don't," Mr Sensenbrenner said. "But the bottom line is real reform cannot be done by presidential fiat."

Mr Obama's willingness to work with a Congress that has clashed with him on national security issues could suggest he is seeking middle ground in the 18 months before the Patriot Act's Section 215 authorizing metadata collection expires through a sunset provision.

House Intelligence Committee Democrat Adam Schiff said he believes Congress will not reauthorize Section 215, and has himself introduced legislation to bring it to an end.

Last July, Congress's sharp divisions on the issue surprised political watchers when the House of Representatives came up only 12 votes shy of shutting down warrantless NSA data collection.

But House Speaker John Boehner warned against crippling or eliminating a programme that has thwarted terror threats.

"The House will review any legislative reforms proposed by the administration, but we will not erode the operational integrity of critical programmes that have helped keep America safe," he said.