The Senate’s senior lawmaker said Tuesday that it is time to repeal provisions of the Patriot Act that the intelligence community has relied on to collect all Americans’ phone records, saying they are not making the country safer.
“In my view, and I’ve discussed this with the White House, the Section 215 collection of Americans’ phone records must end,” said Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy, Vermont Democrat. “It is not making America safer and the government has not made its case this is an effective counterterrorism tool.”
He said he would hold a classified briefing this week and call an open hearing next week to look at the issues at stake.
The intelligence snooping has come under scrutiny in the wake of leaks earlier this year revealing that the U.S. government was collecting the time and phone numbers of calls made in the U.S., as well as combing through other electronic communications.
Since then, the intelligence community has admitted it has repeatedly broken its own rules — though officials say they have caught themselves and generally have not found any intentional efforts to abuse the surveillance programs.
Mr. Leahy, though, said there aren’t enough checks built into the program to let it continue, particularly with the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court — which has grown from a panel that approves wiretaps into a major legal power that decides weighty constitutional issues — operating outside the public’s view.
“They are conducting oversight of highly technical programs that even the agency running them apparently did not understand and certainly did not accurately explain to the court. And they are doing all of this entirely in secret and without the benefits of an adversarial process,” Mr. Leahy said, speaking at the Georgetown University Law Center.
The intelligence community argues that its surveillance programs are justified under the Patriot Act, which passed in 2001 soon after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Specifically, Section 215 of the act grants the government the power to collect records from businesses.
But Mr. Leahy and other critics, including Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., Wisconsin Republican and author of the act, said they never intended for it to be interpreted as broadly as the intelligence community has done.
Both the administration and the secret court say Congress was aware of the privacy issues involved and reauthorized Section 215 again anyway in 2011. In a declassified opinion from the secret court, released last week, Judge Claire Eagan said the administration made sure every member of Congress had a chance to know how the government was using Section 215.
The judge said that collecting telephone records is constitutional and since Congress authorized it under Section 215, it is legal. She said any changes will have to come from Congress.
“In the wake of these disclosures, whether and to what extent the government seeks to continue the program discussed in this memorandum opinion is a matter for the political branches to decide,” she said in the opinion.
Mr. Sensenbrenner has filed an amicus brief in a lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union challenging the argument that members of Congress were adequately informed of the program when they voted in 2011 to continue Section 215
For his part, Mr. Leahy said the government is keeping too many programs secret and is stymieing a valid debate.
While some members of Congress had vaguely warned of programs that the public would be worried about if it knew, they were bound by secrecy rules and that prevented a full debate.
The snooping came to the public’s attention after the leaks earlier this year from former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden, who has been granted asylum in Russia.
“I have no doubt that our national security has been harmed by the release of some of the information that has been in the news, particularly involving activities abroad,” Mr. Leahy said. “But we must find a way to discuss publicly the outer bounds of government authority to surveil Americans.”