- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 29, 2013

The Republican author of the Patriot Act in the House and the senior Democrat in the Senate teamed up Tuesday to write a bill that would stop the National Security Agency’s bulk collection of phone records, setting up a major clash with other lawmakers and the Obama administration who are feverishly fighting to preserve the snooping program.

Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., the Wisconsin Republican who sponsored the Patriot Act in 2001, and Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy, Vermont Democrat, said Americans have been shocked by the revelations of how much data the government is scooping up about them.

But they are headed for a clash with the intelligence community and its allies on Capitol Hill, who say the surveillance programs have helped prevent major terrorist attacks on American soil since Sept. 11, 2001.

All sides agree the snooping programs, revealed in leaks earlier this year, need a full review. But there is little agreement beyond that.

“Somewhere along the way, the balance between security and privacy was lost. It’s now time for the judiciary committees to again come together in a bipartisan fashion to ensure the law is properly interpreted, past abuses are not repeated, and American liberties are protected,” said Mr. Sensenbrenner.

But Gen. Keith B. Alexander, director of the NSA, which runs the phone surveillance program that has led to much of the outrage, said he believes his agency is striking the right balance.

“We would rather be here in front of you today telling why we defended these programs than having given them up and have our nation or our allies be attacked and people killed,” Gen. Alexander testified to the House intelligence committee in a rare open session Tuesday. “And the interesting part is we’ve shown we can do both — defend the country and protect our civil liberties and privacy.”

Members of the intelligence committees are generally sympathetic to the NSA’s argument that collecting and storing metadata from most phone calls made on U.S. companies’ networks is a critical tool. Metadata includes the numbers dialed and the length of calls, but not the conversations themselves.

Right now the data are stored for five years, but Gen. Alexander said he’d be comfortable with lowering that to three years — though he still wants control of the data, rejecting the suggestion that the information could be held by the companies and consulted only when there’s a specific reason.

The government says it has the authority to collect the records under Section 215 of the Patriot Act.

Mr. Sensenbrenner, the chief author of the Patriot Act, said he never intended for that, and his new bill would explicitly prohibit the bulk collection of those records. Instead, the government could only go after specific records, and only if it was engaged in a specific terrorism investigation.

The Senate intelligence committee was debating a different proposal Tuesday afternoon that would reauthorize the program but impose more requirements that the agency submit reports to Congress and would delete the data more quickly.

That meeting went on behind closed doors so it was unclear what progress was made. An aide said the committee didn’t finish work and would reconvene another day.

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