Patriot Act Architect Plans Bill to Deconstruct NSA

“The NSA has gone far beyond the intent of the Patriot Act,” says Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner.

WASHINGTON - DECEMBER 08: Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming ranking member Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-WI) attends a news conference on 'energy, climate-gate and President Obama's trip to Copenhagen' with members of the House Republican American Energy Solutions Group at the U.S. Capitol December 8, 2009 in Washington, DC. What some climate change critics are calling 'climate-gate,' emails and other documents between scientists were hacked or stolen from a British climate-change research center.
National Journal
Dustin Volz
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Dustin Volz
Oct. 10, 2013, 3:19 p.m.

One of the more ser­i­ous con­gres­sion­al threats to the Na­tion­al Se­cur­ity Agency’s con­tro­ver­sial sur­veil­lance pro­grams could come from one of the un­like­li­est of sources: a primary spon­sor of the Pat­ri­ot Act.

Rep. Jim Sensen­bren­ner, R-Wis., cri­ti­cized the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion this week for its us­ing parts of the Pat­ri­ot Act to jus­ti­fy the NSA’s bulk col­lec­tion of Amer­ic­ans’ email and phone data and said he plans to in­tro­duce le­gis­la­tion to lim­it such pro­grams.

“The NSA has gone far bey­ond the in­tent of the Pat­ri­ot Act, par­tic­u­larly in the ac­cu­mu­la­tion and stor­age of metadata,” Sensen­bren­ner said. “Had Con­gress known that the Pat­ri­ot Act had been used to col­lect metadata, the bill would have nev­er been passed.”

Sensen­bren­ner’s bill, dubbed the Free­dom Act, still has “a couple of bugs” to ham­mer out, he said. But Sensen­bren­ner’s vis­ion for the bill is clear: He wants to re­define Sec­tion 215 of the Pat­ri­ot Act, which he be­lieves has been mis­in­ter­preted by the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion, to cre­ate a clear, uni­form stand­ard for law­ful sur­veil­lance by the in­tel­li­gence com­munity that would ef­fect­ively elim­in­ate the NSA’s metadata col­lec­tion pro­gram.

The bill will also seek to make the For­eign In­tel­li­gence Sur­veil­lance Court more trans­par­ent by re­quir­ing it dis­close cer­tain de­cisions and lim­it Sec­tion 702 of the For­eign In­tel­li­gence Sur­veil­lance Act, a 2008 pro­vi­sion that al­lows gov­ern­ment to col­lect In­ter­net com­mu­nic­a­tions from people be­lieved to be liv­ing out­side the United States.

“There is a le­git­im­ate reas­on for the in­tel­li­gence com­munity to col­lect” some per­son­al re­cords of cer­tain in­di­vidu­als, Sensen­bren­ner said. “The ques­tion is wheth­er we should start with that iden­ti­fied per­son and move out from there or grab everything and move in­ward.”

Passed in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, ter­ror­ist at­tacks, the Pat­ri­ot Act has long been vil­i­fied by its de­tract­ors as an un­con­sti­tu­tion­al breach of civil liber­ties. But Sensen­bren­ner scoffs at the no­tion he’s be­ing ideo­lo­gic­ally in­con­sist­ent by try­ing to place bound­ar­ies on in­tel­li­gence col­lec­tion. In­stead, he faults a lack of over­sight.

“The bot­tom line on all of this is when there was vig­or­ous over­sight be­ing done there were not the type of ab­uses that have come to light in the last sev­er­al months,” Sensen­bren­ner said.

Sensen­bren­ner “may be the most le­git­im­ate voice on the is­sues” be­cause of his work on the Pat­ri­ot Act, said Mark Jay­cox, a policy ana­lyst with the Elec­tron­ic Fron­ti­er Found­a­tion.

Sensen­bren­ner sent a let­ter to At­tor­ney Gen­er­al Eric Hold­er last month ask­ing him wheth­er the Justice De­part­ment be­lieves Sec­tion 215 au­thor­izes carte blanche col­lec­tion of Amer­ic­ans’ phone re­cords and oth­er per­son­al data. He fol­lowed up with an ad­di­tion­al let­ter this week and said he has yet to re­ceive a re­sponse.

“We’re go­ing to have a vig­or­ous de­bate, wheth­er they like it or not,” Sensen­bren­ner said.

Jay­cox ad­ded that re­cent rev­el­a­tions over the past month have bolstered the po­s­i­tion of law­makers who want to ad­dress over­sight of do­mest­ic sur­veil­lance.

“The ques­tion is not wheth­er Con­gress is go­ing to do something,” he said, “the ques­tion is how much is Con­gress go­ing to do.”

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