PATRIOT Act author slams Obama Administration over NSA spying

James Sensenbrenner

During a House Judiciary Committee hearing on FISA, Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI) slammed the Obama Administration’s interpretation of the Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act, which allows intelligence and law enforcement agencies to access third-party records, and warned Deputy Attorney General James Cole that it may be not be renewed next year.

The NSA has used Section 215 to obtained authority to force cell phone providers to turn over the phone records of virtually every American, even if they are not suspected of terrorist activity. The catch is that this provision of the PATRIOT Act is only supposed to used in ongoing investigations into terrorist activity.

By so broadly seizing phone records, the Obama Administration is effectively saying that every American is a suspected terrorist. Sensenbrenner suggested that this is a “mockery of the legal standard” in the PATRIOT Act, noting that the intelligence community is “trying to have it both ways.”

Cole disputed the assertion, but Sensenbrenner wasn’t satisfied.

“You gobble up all of those records and then you turn around and say, ‘well, we’ll pick out maybe 300 phone numbers out of the billions of records that you have every day and you store for five years there,’” Sensenbrenner shot back at Cole. “All the rest of this stuff is sitting in a warehouse and we found out from the IRS who knows who wants to have any kind of legal or illegal access to it. You are having it both ways.”

The Wisconsin Republican wasn’t finished there. He also told Cole that the Obama Administration’s approach to surveillance has to change or Congress will allow the provision to sunset next year.

“Let me tell you, as one who has fought PATRIOT Act fights, usually against the people over on the other side of the aisle, Section 215 expires at the end of 2015. Unless you realize you’ve got a problem, that is not going to be renewed,”  warned Sensenbrenner. “There are not the votes in the House of Representatives to renew Section 215, and then you’re gonna lose the business record access provision of the PATRIOT Act, entirely. It’s got to be changed, and you have to change how you operate Section 215, otherwise, in a year and a half or two and a half years, you’re not gonna have it any more.”

While he wasn’t the only member of the committee to voice concern about abuse of the PATRIOT Act, Sensenbrenner, who authored the law, is certainly the most notable.

Sensenbrenner (R-WI) said last month that he was “extremely troubled” that it is being used so broadly. “I do not believe the released FISA order is consistent with the requirements of the PATRIOT Act,” wrote Sensenbrenner in a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder. “How could the phone records of so many innocent Americans be relevant to an authorized investigation as required by the Act?”

He called the NSA’s seizure of Americans’ phone records “excessive and Un-American” and has urged Congress to amend the PATRIOT Act to prevent future abuse.

Reps. John Conyers (D-MI) and Justin Amash (R-MI) have introduced the LIBERT-E Act, which would reform the PATRIOT Act to provide great civil liberties protections for Americans.

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