By Kelly Rucke
Two congressmen who were involved in the passage of the Patriot Act have introduced a bill that would rein in secret surveillance of Americans.
Amid continuing revelations that the U.S. government not only conducted invasive surveillance on its own citizens but on world leaders — including U.S. allies — Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wisc.) introduced a piece of legislation that would “restore Americans’ privacy rights by ending the government’s dragnet collection of phone records and requiring greater oversight, transparency, and accountability with respect to domestic surveillance authorities.”
Known as the USA FREEDOM Act, the legislation would “end the dragnet collection of Americans’ phone records under Section 215 of the USA PATRIOT Act — which allows the FBI to order any person or entity to hand over any tangible item to protect against international terrorism or clandestine intelligence activities — and ensures that other authorities cannot be used to justify similar dragnet collection.”
The bill, which has 16 co-sponsors from both sides of the aisle, would also implement safeguards to ensure that the U.S. government does not conduct warrantless surveillance.
A Special Advocate position would also be created to ensure that Americans’ privacy rights and civil liberties were protected, and detailed public reports about the type and frequency of Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) orders would also be required.
In a joint press release on Oct. 29, Leahy said he co-authored the legislation because “the government surveillance programs conducted under the Foreign Surveillance Intelligence Act are far broader than the American people previously understood. It is time for serious and meaningful reforms so we can restore confidence in our intelligence community.”
“Modest transparency and oversight provisions are not enough. We need real reform, which is why I join today with Congressman Sensenbrenner, as well as a bipartisan group of 15 Senators, to introduce the USA FREEDOM Act.”
Sensenbrenner added that although the U.S. Patriot Act was implemented after 9/11 to “keep Americans safe by ensuring information is shared among those responsible for defending our country and by enhancing the tools the intelligence community needs to identify and track terrorists … the balance between security and privacy was lost.”
He said it’s time for the judiciary committee members to come together again as they did with the Patriot Act, but this time pass a piece of legislation that protects American liberties.
“Washington must regain Americans’ trust in their government. The USA FREEDOM Act is an essential first step,” Sensenbrenner said.
Transparent surveillance practices
Introduction of the Freedom Act legislation comes after Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.) proposed a budget amendment bill this past July that would have defunded a portion of the NSA’s budget — specifically the portion of the agency’s budget that was used to surveil Americans’ phone records.
Amash’s bill failed to pass by 12 votes; the congressman has now come out in support of the Freedom Act.
Advocacy groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union, the National Rifle Association and privacy-rights group Stop Watching Us have all pledged their support for the legislation.
What is unique with this legislation is that Leahy and Sensenbrenner were both the primary authors of the Patriot Act, the specific piece of legislation that the Freedom Act seeks to alter.
In a joint opinion piece for Politico, Leahy and Sensenbrenner wrote that while there have been debates about the benefits of the Patriot Act since it was passed 12 years ago, collecting “millions of Americans’ phone records every day — whether they have any connection at all to terrorism — goes far beyond what Congress envisioned or intended to authorize.”
“Since the revelation that the National Security Agency is collecting the details of Americans’ phone calls on an unprecedented scale, it has come out that the government searches the content of huge troves of emails, collects in bulk the address books from email accounts and social networking sites, at least temporarily collected geolocation data from our cellphones, committed thousands of privacy violations and made substantial misrepresentations to courts and Congress.
“Not only do many of these programs raise serious legal questions, they have come at a high cost to Americans’ privacy rights, business interests and standing in the international community. It is time for a new approach.”
Though the legislation’s authors say the government’s surveillance techniques will cease to exist with the passage of the Freedom Act, the intelligence community will still be allowed to gather information on Americans.
But instead of the surveillance program’s activities being kept secret, the bill would create new oversight, auditing and public reporting requirements.
“No longer will the government be able to employ a carte-blanche approach to records collection or enact secret laws by covertly reinterpreting congressional intent,” the opinion piece says. “And to further promote privacy interests, our legislation establishes a special advocate to provide a counterweight to the surveillance interests in the FISA Court’s closed-door proceedings.”
Though Leahy and Sensenbrenner acknowledge the problems with the U.S. government’s surveillance practices, the two said that they believe Congress has to have some surveillance practices in order to keep the country safe:
“Congress did not enact FISA and the PATRIOT Act to give the government boundless surveillance powers that could sweep in the data of countless innocent Americans. If all of our phone records are relevant to counterterrorism investigations, what else could be?
“The intelligence community has failed to justify its expansive use of these laws. It is simply not accurate to say that the bulk collection of phone records has prevented dozens of terrorist plots. The most senior NSA officials have acknowledged as much in congressional testimony. We also know that the FISA court has admonished the government for making a series of substantial misrepresentations to the court regarding these programs. As a result, the intelligence community now faces a trust deficit with the American public that compromises its ability to do its job. It is not enough to just make minor tweaks around the edges. It is time for real, substantive reform.”