Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner sent another warning shot Tuesday to members of the intelligence community that they risk losing all congressional authority for the National Security Agency's collection of bulk telephone records if his bill restricting the program is not passed.
Sensenbrenner, a Wisconsin Republican, told Deputy Attorney General James Cole during a House Judiciary Committee hearing that Congress will not reauthorize Section 215 of the post-9/11 Patriot Act before it sunsets on June 1, 2015, if substantial reforms to government surveillance are not adopted by then. The NSA derives much of its surveillance power from that section of the law. He added that Congress would never have passed or twice reauthorized the Patriot Act, which he authored, had it known the full breadth of the NSA's surveillance muscle.
"Unless Section 215 gets fixed, you, Mr. Cole, and the intelligence community will get absolutely nothing, because I am confident there are not the votes in this Congress to reauthorize it," Sensenbrenner said. "And I can say that without qualification."
Cole refused to offer a position on the bill when pressed by Sensenbrenner, noting that the Justice Department held no stance on NSA legislation pending in Congress.
Sensenbrenner has been championing his Freedom Act since he introduced it late last year. He has repeatedly condemned the administrations of both President Obama and George W. Bush for taking carte blanche liberty with their interpretation of the word "relevant" in the Patriot Act's controversial Section 215, which has come under intense scrutiny in the wake of the Edward Snowden leaks.
Sensenbrenner's Freedom Act would limit the bulk collection of telephone metadata under Section 215; create a special advocate to oversee the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court; and require the NSA to increase overall transparency and accountability. It currently has 130 cosponsors and possesses a mirror bill in the Senate backed by Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy.
Sensenbrenner also lambasted a competing bill offered by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat, as a "joke" that wouldn't usher in true reform at the NSA, a common criticism lobbed at her proposal by privacy and civil-liberty advocates.
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