The congressman who wrote the Patriot Act said he never intended for the snooping law to be used to grab millions of records in a government fishing expedition like the secret court-approved Verizon phone-records search revealed in news reports this week.
Stung by the Verizon revelations, a number of lawmakers came forward Thursday to say they never intended the laws they wrote following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks to be used to go after records as broadly as the Obama administration appears to be doing.
Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., who was chairman of the House Judiciary Committee in the days after the Sept. 11 attacks and wrote the Patriot Act, said using a secret court to gain access to phone records without a subpoena was “excessive and un-American.”
“I do not believe the released [secret court] order is consistent with the requirements of the Patriot Act,” Mr. Sensenbrenner wrote in a letter to Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. “How could the phone records of so many innocent Americans be relevant to an authorized investigation as required by the act?”
The Guardian newspaper of London revealed this week that the Obama administration won an order from a secret court that requires Verizon, one of the country’s largest phone companies, to turn over location, length, duration and phone number for every call it carries on its system.
The government said the siphoning of records is justified based on Section 215 of the Patriot Act, which gives the government authority to seek records from businesses.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest said the court order does not grant the administration the ability to listen in on calls. Administration officials also said these kinds of activities are vetted with a few members of Congress.
Some of those members who are briefed came to the program’s defense.
“The executive branch’s use of this authority has been briefed extensively to the Senate and House Intelligence and Judiciary Committees, and detailed information has been made available to all members of Congress prior to each congressional reauthorization of this law,” the chairman and vice chairman of the Senate intelligence committee said.
But Mr. Sensenbrenner said the Justice Department may have misled Congress over the data. In 2011, a top department official said the section was used less than 40 times a year. Mr. Sensenbrenner said that gave the impression it was being used sparingly, to look for specific materials, not a broad fishing expedition.
And Sen. Ron Wyden, Oregon Democrat, said the nation’s top intelligence official misled him in March when he asked Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper if the National Security Agency collects “any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans.” Mr. Clapper replied: “No sir.”
Mr. Wyden posted a video of the exchange Thursday.
The Patriot Act passed 357-66 in the House on Oct. 24, 2001, and cleared the Senate a day later in a 98-1 vote.
Former Sen. Russell D. Feingold, Wisconsin Democrat, was the only senator to oppose it. In a statement Thursday, he said he suspected at the time that the bill “was simply an FBI wish list” that allowed the kinds of fishing expeditions that were revealed this week.
“This is deeply troubling,” Mr. Feingold said. “I hope today’s news will renew a serious conversation about how to protect the country while ensuring that the rights of law-abiding Americans are not violated.”