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Review, reform, but don't reject the NSA [Commentary]

We must review and reform the National Security Agency (NSA), but we cannot reject the mission of the NSA, nor the men and women who work there.

The barrage of illegal revelations about the NSA by Edward Snowden have damaged our national security. They've eroded Americans' trust in government. Our image has been harmed abroad.

We must restore Americans' faith that our intelligence programs pass four fundamental questions: Are they constitutional? Are they legal? Are they authorized? And are they necessary?

Yes, we need to review the NSA programs rigorously and thoroughly. The president's review group on the NSA programs came out with a report in December 2013. All of these recommendations need to be reviewed swiftly and diligently by Congress, by the president and by the American people. The president has also done an internal review on the programs, as outlined in his speech Friday, and I'll be reviewing each of his recommendations closely.

Yes, we need to reform the NSA and its programs — but we need to do so responsibly and using common sense. As a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee and chairwoman of the Appropriations Committee, I have been advocating for reforms for many years.

Since 2007, I tried — but was stymied by some in the House Armed Services Committee — to require that the director of NSA be Senate confirmed to hold that person to the toughest standards of oversight and accountability. With the help of my colleague Dan Coats, an Indiana Republican, we were successful in getting that bipartisan provision included in two bills last year, plus language to require Senate confirmation of the NSA inspector general so that there is another independent whistle blower avenue for people working in the NSA.

I have also joined senators Ron Wyden, Mark Udall and Martin Heinrich, Democrats from Oregon, Colorado and New Mexico, in introducing a provision asking for additional transparency in making U.S. Foreign Intelligence Surveillance (FISA) Court opinions more available to the public. I have supported strengthening the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, more open hearings by the Senate Intelligence Committee on FISA issues and automatic disclosure by the FISA Court of any constitutional violations in using FISA data.

We need to settle once and for all whether the FISA laws passed by Congress are in fact constitutional. In recent months there have been several contradictory legal opinions as to whether the FISA programs are constitutional. As an immediate first step, the Supreme Court should make it an urgent priority to review whether the FISA programs are constitutional. If not, then that's it.

Let's review. Let's reform. But let's not reject the men and women of the NSA, based on illegal revelations. I am proud that the NSA calls Maryland home. The country needs these patriots doing what they do. They serve in silence, without public accolades. They protect us against cyber attacks. They protect us against terrorist attacks. And the work they do is absolutely essential to protecting our warfighters in the military. In an unpredictable world, good intelligence is often our first line of defense, and it often starts with NSA's work.

I believe that the debate about FISA and the NSA is healthy and important for our democracy. Let's debate. Let's discuss whether and how our intelligence programs are constitutional, legal, authorized and necessary. If we proceed with a spirit of responsible reform rather than blame, I know that our democracy can emerge stronger in the end.

Barbara A. Mikulski is Maryland's senior United States Senator and a Democrat. She can be reached at communications@mikulski.senate.gov.

To respond to this commentary, send an email to talkback@baltimoresun.com. Please include your name and contact information.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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