Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., the author and primary sponsor of the USA PATRIOT Act, announced Wednesday that he would introduce legislation, the USA FREEDOM Act, to end the National Security Agency’s bulk collection of Americans’ phone and Internet metadata.
“My view of the PATRIOT Act hasn’t changed,” said Sensenbrenner at a Cato Institute conference on NSA surveillance.
“What has changed is what two administrations, Bush 43 and the Obama Administration, have done after I left office as chairman of the (House) Judiciary Committee and did not have my tart oversight pen to send oversight letters that usually were cosigned by Congressman (John) Conyers, then the ranking member, to the Justice Department, and specifically acting like a crabby, old professors when they were non-responsive in their answers,” he explained.
Sensenbrenner has become a fierce critic of the NSA’s surveillance techniques, referring to them as “excessive and un-American” in a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder. The NSA has justified the bulk data collection through a controversial provision of the PATRIOT Act. The congressman contends the NSA is defying congressional intent as the provision, Section 215, allows intelligence agencies to seize records related to an actual investigation into terrorist activity.
In July, Sensenbrenner voted for an amendment offered by Rep. Justin Amash, R-Mich., that would have limited the extent to which the NSA could spy, reasserting the original intent of Congress. That measure was defeated, though narrowly. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told members of Senate Judiciary Committee that the spying is necessary for “peace of mind,” despite not playing much of a factor in the thwarting of terrorist plots.
“The phone records of innocent Americans do not relate to terrorism, whatsoever, and they are not reasonably likely to lead to information that relates to terrorism,” said Sensenbrenner. “Put simply, the phone calls we make to our friends, our families, and business associates are private and have nothing to do with terrorism or the government’s efforts to stop it.”
“The arguments to the contrary are not compelling,” he noted. “As the administration explains it, all of our phone records are relevant because the connections between individual data points are of potential value. But these private collections are only of value if they in some way relate to terrorism. To the extent that they don’t, the government has no right to collect them.”
“The government claims it needs the haystack to find a needle. But gathering the haystack — and making it larger — without knowledge that it contains the needle is precisely what the relevant standard was supposed to prevent,” added Sensenbrenner.
The Wisconsin Republican said that the broad interpretation of the law — where there is essentially no established threshold for the intelligence community to obtain data — is something that Congress would have never approved. He is proposing a legislative fix — the USA FREEDOM Act.
“In the next few days, Sen. [Patrick] Leahy, Ranking Member Conyers, and I, along with other members who are passionate about civil liberties, plan to introduce the ‘Uniting and Strengthening America by Fulfilling Rights and Ending Eavesdropping, Dragnet Collection, and Online Monitoring Act,’ which will be better known as the ‘USA FREEDOM Act,'” said Sensenbenner, which got some laughter out of the audience since the title is the play off of the USA PATRIOT Act.
“This comprehensive legislation will end the bulk collection of Americans’ communications records by adopting a uniform standard for intelligence gathering under Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act,” said Sensenbrenner of the to-be-proposed legislation. “Let me make it quite clear: it ends the NSA’s ability to collect what they call ‘a metadata program.'”
He noted that the FREEDOM Act would reform the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) by creating a civil liberties advocate, create new reporting requirements and oversight from Congress for the court and grant the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board subpoena authority. The legislation will also reform National Security Letters (NSL) to ensure that the current administration or its successors don’t use another agency to collect bulk data.
“The [Obama] administration has proven — beyond a reasonable doubt, in my opinion — that any standard can be abused. So it is also critical that we increase transparency,” said Sensenbrenner. “We don’t need to have an Edward Snowden to let us know what is going on there. We need more transparency, and there’s a way to do it.”
The FREEDOM Act will be the latest measure introduced to protect Americans’ privacy since the breadth of NSA’s spying program has come into focus. While all the measures would reform the NSA and offer substantive change, this bipartisan measure, backed by the author of the PATRIOT Act, appears the most formidable.