Patriot Act Architect: No More Spying Unless My NSA Reform Bill Passes

Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner warned government officials that they risk losing all spying authorization next year if his Freedom Act doesn’t pass Congress.

President Barack Obama looks through binoculars towards North Korea from Observation Post Ouellette during a visit to the Joint Security Area of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) near Panmunjom on the border between North and South Korea on March 25, 2012.
National Journal
Dustin Volz
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Dustin Volz
Feb. 4, 2014, 7:10 a.m.

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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