(WASHINGTON) – Today, the U.S. House Judiciary Committee held a full committee hearing on, “Oversight of the administration’s Use of Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) Authorities.” The U.S. House Judiciary Committee is the committee of primary jurisdiction for both authorities principally discussed at the hearing today: Section 215 of the USA PATRIOT Act and Section 702 of the FISA Amendments Act. Following his opening remarks, Ranking Member John Conyers, Jr. (D-Mich.) issued the following statement:
“Over the past decade – under the leadership of four chairmen with diverse political views – the members of the Judiciary Committee have vigorously debated the proper balance between public safety and the constitutional right to privacy. We never – at any point during this debate – approved the type of unchecked, sweeping surveillance of United States citizens employed by the federal government in the name of fighting the so-called war on terrorism.”
“This is not and should not be a partisan issue. The Judiciary Committee should work together in a bipartisan fashion to increase our oversight of these programs, and to increase the accountability of the federal government to the American people. As a first step, Congress should work to make more information about government surveillance programs available to the public. If the government cannot provide us with a clear explanation for its actions, I will urge President Obama to terminate these programs immediately.
“The administration has made various arguments to justify its use of these programs. Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act authorizes the government to obtain certain business records only if it can show to the FISA Court that the records are ‘relevant’ to an ongoing national security investigation. The Judiciary Committee added this ‘relevance’ standard to Section 215 when we debated reauthorization of the PATRIOT Act in 2005. Although we clearly intended for this Section 215 authority to resemble a grand jury subpoena – directed at a particular individual and related to a specific investigation – we now know that the federal government instead collects records on every phone call made in the United States.
“This widespread surveillance runs counter to the intentions of Congress. And, unfortunately, under Section 215 the government renews its demand for the production of all phone records every 90 days, forcing companies to provide these records on an ongoing basis, apparently without end. By the government’s own admission, there is no limit whatsoever on its collection of metadata under Section 215. I have therefore come to the conclusion that, if the government cannot provide a clear, public explanation for how its program is consistent with the statute, then it must stop collecting this information immediately.
“Various government officials have assured the public that these programs make us safer. But, those assurances have no bearing on the law; indeed, there are many unlawful steps that the government could take to enhance our national security. Unfortunately, I believe that the NSA’s communications surveillance programs fall into this unlawful category by even a cursory reading of the Fourth Amendment.
“This sentiment was underscored in the testimony of two witnesses appearing before the Judiciary Committee in the second panel today.
“Jameel Jaffer of the American Civil Liberties Union noted how, ‘The NSA cannot insulate this program from Fourth Amendment scrutiny simply by promising that Americans’ private information will be safe in its hands. The Fourth Amendment exists to prevent the government from acquiring Americans’ private papers and communications in the first place.’
“And, in addressing the unique concerns posed by the surveillance occurring over online and electronic networks, Kate Martin of the Center for National Security Studies explained, ‘…the notion that Fourth Amendment protections have no applicability to information about an individual held by third parties, no longer hold in the new world of massive electronic data about individuals held by Internet service providers, telecommunications companies and others.’
“President Obama has called for a public discussion about these surveillance authorities. I agree. But if we are to have that honest discussion, we should focus on options to improve both public scrutiny and congressional oversight of these surveillance programs. One option would be to publicly release significant FISA court opinions or unclassified summaries of these opinions. This would subject the government’s legal claims to much-needed public scrutiny.
“If we are to strike the right balance with these surveillance authorities, then we must bring the public into the conversation without delay. Instead of simply asking our constituents to trust us, I am asking you, the executive branch, to trust them.”
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