Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI), who helped draft the PATRIOT Act, is exploring options to narrow a provision of the law that allows the National Security Agency (NSA) to obtain telephonic metadata on nearly all Americans. The comments are the first indication that Congress may act to restrict the government’s ongoing data collection since the Guardian published a secret court order compelling Verizon to turn over its records on a “on an ongoing daily basis” and the Wall Street Journal reported that AT&T and Sprint are also sending their records to the government.
“I have a big problem because the business records part of the Patriot Act, which is what was used to justify this, was designed for specific investigations,” Sensenbrenner told Fox News on Friday. “We’re seeing big government in action, just like George Orwell predicted but maybe a few years later,” he added.
Section 215 of the Patriot Act allows the government to order businesses to turn over “the production of any tangible things” if it can prove that “there are reasonable grounds to believe” that the tangible things sought are “relevant to an authorized investigation . . . to obtain foreign intelligence information. . . or to protect against international terrorism or clandestine intelligence activities.” The government has been obtaining metadata records from telephone companies for years and has used three-month secret warrants fromt the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISA) court since 2006.
Sensenbrenner indicated that he will draft legislation to “change that part of the business records part of the Patriot Act before it expires in 2015” to more narrowly tailor it and will question FBI Director Robert Muller about the program when he appears before Congress next week. Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) also plans to offer a bill designed to close the “business records” provision.
“This is a dragnet. It is an overreach and we’ve got to find out this is justified, simply because the NSA wants to do some data mining,” Sensenbrenner said. On Thursday, he wrote a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder complaining that, “I do not believe the released FISA order is consistent with the requirements of the Patriot Act.”
The congressman initially dismissed critics who warned of government abuse of the Patriot Act in 2005 and 2006, but first admitted that the FBI may be abusing the law in 2007.
In 2005, then-Senator Barack Obama sponsored a bill to require the government to prove it has “specific and articulable facts” that a targeted individual is an “agent of a foreign power” before accessing records.