The one-time champion of granting the intelligence community more surveillance authority is redoubling efforts to pass his spying reform bill amid revelations the NSA intentionally spied on Americans through a law meant to apply only to foreigners.
Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner on Wednesday said his Freedom Act would close a “loophole” a senior intelligence official recently admitted the NSA has exploited to spy on the actual contents — and not just “metadata” — of Americans’ communications without a warrant.
“We now know Section 702 of [the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act] has been improperly used to obtain the content of Americans’ private communications without a warrant, which is unconstitutional under the Fourth Amendment and a blatant violation of Americans’ civil liberties,” the Wisconsin Republican said in a statement. “The USA Freedom Act ends bulk collection, closes the loophole being exploited to access the communications of Americans, and strikes the proper balance between privacy and security.”
Section 702 grants the NSA broad authority to listen to phone calls and access emails, but is only meant to cover non-U.S. persons located outside of the country. While the agency sometimes incidentally collects U.S. data during its sweeping collection, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper revealed this week in a letter to Sen. Ron Wyden that the agency has searched its database at times to specifically look for Americans’ communications.
Sensenbrenner, who authored the post-9/11 Patriot Act from which the government justifies much of its mass-surveillance authority, became a born-again crusader against bulk data collection last year following the initial disclosures by Edward Snowden. His Freedom Act was introduced last fall and has accrued more than 140 cosponsors, though it has seen little momentum recently. Sen. Patrick Leahy is sponsoring mirror legislation.
Sensenbrenner also took a swipe at a bill introduced last month by Reps. Mike Rogers and Dutch Ruppersberger, saying it lacked teeth and, unlike his bill, “does not” close the 702 loophole.
The Freedom Act awaits judgment in the House Judiciary Committee, where Sensenbrenner, a former chairman, currently serves. The bill from Rogers and Ruppersberger, however, was referred to the House Intelligence Committee, which the frequent NSA defenders lead, prompting some members of Judiciary to claim they were being intentionally cut out of the debate on how to best reform the NSA.
Several privacy and civil-liberties groups have insisted that Sensenbrenner’s bill is the only legislation that will sufficiently reform government surveillance.