In the aftermath of the attacks of 9/11, Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) authored the Patriot Act in order to expand the government’s surveillance powers in an effort to protect against the threat of terrorism in the 21st century. Twelve years later, he is preparing a new bill, the USA Freedom Act, to reign those surveillance powers back in.
National Journal is reporting that Sensenbrenner plans to introduce the new legislation next week with around 60 co-sponsors, including several who had voted against the attempt by Justin Amash (R-Mich.) and John Conyers (D-Mich.) to defund parts of the NSA’s activities earlier this spring. “‘Six members who voted no and two who didn’t vote on the Amash amendment are original cosponsors of the USA Freedom Act,’ Sensenbrenner spokesman Ben Miller told National Journal. ‘Had they voted for the amendment, it would have passed 213 to 211.’”
In a previous discussion about the bill, Sensenbrenner told the Washington Post‘s “The Fix” blog:
I can say that if Congress knew what the NSA had in mind in the future immediately after 9/11, the Patriot Act never would have passed, and I never would have supported it. We have to have a balance of security and civil liberties. 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.
In that same conversation, Sensenbrenner described the outlines of the bill:
Andrea Peterson: What is the USA Freedom Act?
Sensenbrenner: It does several things. First of all, it stops the collection of metadata by the NSA and has some restrictions on section 215 of the Patriot Act — essentially, the suggestions made by Senator Leahy in the 2005/2006 reauthorization act which were rejected during the negotiations. It restricts section 215 to bring it back to the original intent, which was that the Justice Department would identify a non-U.S. person who is engaged in a terrorist organization, get a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) order to be able to find out who that person was in contact with, and be able to try to spread that spiderweb to see who was involved in a plot that might target people either domestically or internationally.
And it also deals with reforming the FISA Court?
The two other things are that we are proposing reform of the FISA Court, where we recognize there are things that have got to be classified. But if the FISA Court changes policy or attempts to reinterpret the law, we require the publication of that so it is not a secret decision when basically the FISA Court allows the NSA to shift gears. The other thing we do is create an office of public advocate to represent the public and privacy interests in particular — and also give the public advocate authority to appeal a decision of the FISA court the advocate feels does not comport with the law or comport with policies.
National Journal also reported that
The Senate Intelligence Committee is also expected to vote Tuesday behind closed doors on legislation brought by committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Vice Chairman Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., to appease surveillance critics by increasing transparency and accountability of FISA.
While a closed door vote on legislation authored by prominent defenders of the NSA could be the transparency critics are seeking, it seems more likely that the bill being prepared by the Patriot Act’s outraged author will be the most promising path to the first genuine surveillance reform in the aftermath of Edward Snowden’s revelations.
While the stories emerging from Snowden’s materials have veered further and further from exposing illegal and/or unconstitutional activities here at home over the past months, Sensenbrenner’s words are a reminder of just how vital his earlier leaks have been to restoring the rule of law and democratic accountability to our surveillance system.