Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats sent a letter to Congress supporting a “clean and permanent” reauthorization of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) by the end of this year. While FISA is a critical component to ensuring our national security, passing a permanent reauthorization would remove transparency from the process and puts the privacy of innocent Americans at risk.
Following the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and I authored the USA PATRIOT Act – legislation that directly responded to those attacks by increasing the government’s ability to collect information in order to prevent terrorism. When NSA contractor Edward Snowden leaked information about the Agency’s bulk data collection activities in 2013, it was clear that Congress needed to act on behalf of Americans’ Fourth Amendment right to privacy. That led to the introduction and ultimate passage of the USA FREEDOM Act, which ended the NSA’s indiscriminate collection of personal information and provides stronger privacy safeguards against intrusive government surveillance.
In their letter, Sessions and Coats argue that Section 702 currently “provides a comprehensive regime of oversight by all three branches of Government to protect the privacy and civil liberties of U.S. persons,” but without regular examination of these efforts by Congress, there is no guarantee that such oversight would continue. By maintaining FISA sunsets, lawmakers are able to review actions taken by government agencies and ensure that citizens’ constitutional rights are being upheld, as well as make any necessary reforms to the law. Removing such safeguards would amount to dereliction of duty by Congress, and it would hinder its ability to respond to the changing demands of a technological world.
Innovations in technology continually force us to shift and improve the way we combat terrorism. As technology becomes more sophisticated, so do our enemies and the methods they use to perpetrate acts of violence and terrorism. Finding the right balance between privacy rights and national security will never be easy. It will require sustained attention from Congress and our intelligence communities. It’s imperative that we are able to adapt to new threats and reform our laws to reflect those threats.
It would be shortsighted for Congress to suspend its ability to respond appropriately to the dangers facing our nation, which is why I am an original co-sponsor of the Uniting and Strengthening American (USA Liberty) Act of 2017.
This carefully crafted, bipartisan legislation represents the type of common sense compromise that our country needs and deserves. It balances privacy and security by requiring greater oversight, transparency, and accountability of the government’s surveillance powers while limiting the incidental collection of Americans’ communications and requiring a court order to query data. It also puts in place a six-year sunset provision, allowing Congress to reexamine the legislation as our society – and everything that threatens it – continues to evolve.
Rule of law is critical to the success and prosperity of this nation. Congress did not enact FISA to give the government limitless surveillance powers that would intrude upon the data of countless innocent Americans, and it certainly should not take away its power to perform crucial oversight for government abuses.
The justifications Mr. Sessions and Mr. Coats provide for their support of ending of 702’s sunset provisions, such as Title VII’s requirement that the Department of Justice and the Office of the Director of National Security report to Congress on “implementation and compliance twice a year” are not enough to warrant the abolishment of these provisions. A report does little good if Congress cannot take action to reform practices if necessary. Further, the claim that the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court “exercises rigorous independent oversight of activities conducted pursuant to Section 702” is only one facet of the oversight necessary to ensure the protection of national security and privacy rights.
Ending Section 702’s sunset provisions would be gamble that America cannot afford to take in respect to both national security efforts and personal privacy. As these discussions continue to be debated in Congress, I urge my congressional colleagues to examine the merits of the USA Liberty Act and seriously consider the consequences of ending these vital provisions to determine whether they believe our nation can afford to take such a risk.
Sensenbrenner represents Wisconsin’s 5th District and is a member of the House Judiciary Committee.
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