Jim In the News
Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner's quest to rein in the NSA
Jim Sensenbrenner was the chief congressional architect of the USA Patriot Act, the sweeping anti-terrorism law that passed after the attacks in 2001 and gave broad new surveillance power to the federal government. He has been a fierce defender of his work.
So give Sensenbrenner credit. A dozen years later, the Wisconsin congressman is now leading an admirable fight to end abuses of the law by the National Security Agency and other government offices.
A bill he introduced last week along with Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont would take some of the wind out of the NSA's data vacuum, increase transparency of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court and create an independent advocate to argue cases before the court on behalf of the public.
The legislation has bipartisan support in both house of Congress and also from an interesting array of strange bedfellows that includes both the National Rifle Association and the American Civil Liberties Union.
We urge Congress to give this legislation careful consideration; it heads in the right direction.
"We have to make a balance between security and civil liberties," Sensenbrenner said recently. "And the reason the intelligence community has gotten itself into such trouble is they apparently do not see why civil liberties have got to be protected."
In an interview last week with The Washington Post, Sensenbrenner said that if Congress had known what the NSA planned to do, the Patriot Act would not have passed — and he wouldn't have supported it.
"What the NSA has done, with the concurrence of both the Bush and Obama administrations, is completely forgotten about the guarantees of civil liberties that those of us who helped write the Patriot Act in 2001 and the reauthorization in 2005 and 2006 had written the law to prevent from happening," he said.
Discontent with the NSA has been building for months after revelations in June by former government contractor Edward Snowden. We now know that the NSA monitored the phone calls of the heads of state of U.S. allies for years, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel and that the NSA sucked up tens of millions of calls in France, Spain and many other countries.
The agency appears to have improperly captured data from thousands of U.S. phone numbers and misrepresented its actions before the secret spy court. Just last week came the allegation that the agency also had tapped the fiber-optic cables that connected Google's and Yahoo's overseas servers and sucked out huge amounts of data.
"We do not provide any government, including the U.S. government, with access to our systems," David Drummond, Google' chief legal officer, said in a statement after that story broke. "We are outraged at the lengths to which the government seems to have gone to intercept data from our private fiber networks, and it underscores the need for urgent reform."
And it's not clear that such activity was all that helpful. The NSA and its supporters says that it is, but when pressed at a recent Senate hearing, Gen. Keith Alexander, the agency's director, testified that only a handful of "attacks thwarted" had any connection to the United States.
Stopping any terror plot saves lives. Preventing terrorism has to be a top priority for the federal government, and to do that the U.S. needs a robust intelligence network. Intelligence failures were part of the reason the government was unable to prevent the Sept. 11 attacks.
But does the NSA really need to vacuum up tens of millions of phone calls, especially if those phones belong to U.S. citizens? We doubt it. And we also doubt there would be such a groundswell to rein in the NSA but for the disclosures by Snowden, who now is in exile in Russia. Time will whether Snowden is really more hero than traitor, but his actions have led to an overdue national conversation on intelligence and privacy.
The Sensenbrenner/Leahy legislation would put a stop to the bulk collection of telephone records and force the NSA to only go after foreign suspects who are targets of terror investigations. It requires the government to filter for and throw out information about Americans that is collected by accident. It creates a public advocate to promote privacy interests before the FISA court and makes the court's work more transparent.
The Obama administration has argued in the past that bulk data collection is permitted by Section 215 of the Patriot Act. Not so, says Sensenbrenner, but the new legislation would make certain of that. The bill also would force the government to get a court order to search for the communications of Americans in data that is scooped up abroad.
Sensenbrenner's bill is in stark contrast to one approved by the Senate Intelligence Committee last week. That bill, championed by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the committee chairwoman, would bless the NSA's domestic spying while offering the fig leaf of stronger privacy protections for Americans. No thanks.
America needs a strong intelligence system, but it doesn't need to know that Angela Merkel just ordered solyankafor dinner. And it should not be randomly invading the privacy of millions of U.S. citizens.
Protect the country. Protect privacy. We can do both.
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