As Bipartisan Concern Grows, Conyers Urges Surveillance Overhaul At Judiciary Hearing
(WASHINGTON) – Today, the U.S. House Judiciary Committee held a full committee hearing entitled “Examining Recommendations to Reform Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) Authorities.” During his opening remarks, Judiciary Committee Ranking Member John Conyers, Jr. (D-Mich.) delivered the following statement:
U.S. Representative John Conyers, Jr.
“The 9/11 Commission, observing that Congress had ‘vested substantial new powers in the investigative agencies of the government’ with the passage of the Patriot Act, argued that it would be ‘healthy’ for the country to engage in ‘full and informed debate’ on these new authorities. The Commission concluded that, when that debate eventually takes place, ‘the burden of proof for retaining a particular government power should be on the executive to explain… that the power actually [and] materially enhances security.’ We are now engaged in that debate. For the first time, the public understands that our government is engaged in widespread domestic surveillance. This surveillance includes - but is not limited to - the government’s collection of records on virtually every phone call placed in the United States under Section 215 of the Patriot Act. Consensus is growing that this telephone metadata program is largely ineffective, inconsistent with our national values, and inconsistent with the statute as this Committee wrote it. As the 9/11 Commission proposed, the burden rests with the government to convince us otherwise.
“Reasonable people can disagree with me about whether or not the government has met that burden. But there are three points to guide us in this debate that I believe are incontrovertible:
“First, the status quo is unacceptable. President Obama, his Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technology, and the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board all agree that the telephone metadata program as currently exists must end. The Review Group had full access to the leadership of the intelligence community. It concluded that there has been no instance in which the National Security Agency could say with confidence that the outcome of a case would have been different without the Section 215 metadata program. The Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board came to the same conclusion, and also observed that ‘the operation of the… bulk telephone records program bears almost no resemblance’ to the actual text of the statute.
“In his remarks at the Department of Justice, President Obama observed that, because expanding technological capabilities place ‘fewer and fewer technical constraints on what we can do’ we have a special obligation ‘to ask tough questions about what we should do.’ The President ordered immediate changes to the telephone metadata program, and asked the Attorney General and the Director of National Security to ‘develop options for a new approach’ that takes these records out of government hands. I commend President Obama for his willingness to make these necessary changes. It cannot be easy for a sitting president to restrain his own intelligence capabilities, even if it is the right thing to do. After all, in the President’s own words, ‘there is an inevitable bias within the intelligence community… to collect more information about the world, not less.’
“Which brings me to my second point: the Administration cannot solve this problem without Congress. The House Judiciary Committee must act. We are the primary committee of jurisdiction in the House for the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, the exclusive means by which the government may conduct domestic surveillance. We are the proper forum for a debate about constitutional rights and civil liberties. More acutely, the government is dependent on this Committee to renew the legal authorities now under review. Section 215 is scheduled to sunset on June 1, 2015. If it expires, all Section 215 programs - not merely bulk collection - expire with it. We should address bulk collection today, or we risk losing all of Section 215 this time next year. Unless this Committee acts - and acts soon - I fear we will lose valuable counterterrorism tools along with the surveillance programs many of us find objectionable.
“Finally, as this Committee moves forward, H.R. 3361, the USA FREEDOM Act, represents a reasonable, consensus view - and remains the right vehicle for reform. I am struck by the growing, bipartisan consensus here. More and more of us seem to agree that: Congress should end bulk collection under Section 215, but allow the FBI’s continued use of normal business records orders on a case-by-case basis; we should retain the basic structure of Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, but enact additional protections for U.S. persons whose communications are intercepted without a warrant; we should create an opportunity for an independent advocate to represent privacy and civil liberties interests before the FISA court; and, in the service of meaningful public debate, we should declassify significant opinions of the FISA court, enhance reporting to Congress, and allow companies to disclose more about their cooperation with the government.
“These reforms are consistent with the President’s remarks, the recommendations of the Review Group, and the report of the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board. They are also, point for point, the main objectives of the USA Freedom Act. Mr. Sensenbrenner, who is credited as the original author of the Patriot Act, is our lead on this bill in the House. Senator Leahy has introduced an identical measure in the Senate. The USA Freedom Act enjoys the support of 130 members, evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans. More than half of this Committee now supports the bill. Our numbers grow every week. Mr. Chairman, I urge you to bring this bill up for consideration before the House Judiciary Committee as soon as possible.
“Our mandate is clear. We have heard from the President, from his panel of experts, and from an independent oversight board. We will reexamine their proposals today, but the time for reform is now.
“At the risk of making too much reference to the attacks of September 11, 2001, I would close my remarks with another passage from the 9/11 Commission Report: ‘We must find ways of reconciling security with liberty, since the success of one helps protect the other. The choice between security and liberty is a false choice, as nothing is more likely to endanger America’s liberties than the success of a terrorist attack at home.’
“Our history has shown that insecurity threatens liberty. Yet, if our liberties are curtailed, we lose the values that we are struggling to defend.”