Ranking Member Conyers Statement at Department of Justice Oversight Hearing
(WASHINGTON) – Today, the U.S. House Judiciary Committee held a full committee hearing entitled, “Oversight of the U.S. Department of Justice.” During his opening remarks, Ranking Member John Conyers, Jr. (D-Mich.) delivered the following statement:
U.S. Representative John Conyers, Jr.
“Mr. Chairman, I would like to begin by asking you to join me in reminding our members that we must conduct ourselves in a manner that befits the House Judiciary Committee. The Attorney General of the United States is our guest. No matter what our political differences may be, he is worthy of our full attention, our courtesy, and our respect. Attorney General Holder, welcome,” said Conyers.
“In the vast jurisdiction of the Department of Justice, there are many topics worthy of discussion today.
“First among them, your commitment to enforcing voting rights for all Americans in the wake of the Shelby County decision. Voter discrimination of all kinds is alive and well in this country, and it ought to be this Committee’s overwhelming priority to take up H.R. 3899, the Voting Rights Amendment Act, without delay.
“Your work in sentencing reform is remarkable. In a country where nearly half of all federal inmates are serving time for drug offenses, the harshest crimes should be reserved for violent offenders. As you stated before the Sentencing Commission last month, our ‘focused reliance on incarceration is not just financially unsustainable - it comes with human and moral costs that are impossible to calculate.’
“We should note the Department’s efforts to engage state and local agencies, juvenile justice systems, and community leaders to end the school-to-prison pipeline and ensure that every young person has the opportunity to reach his full potential, regardless of the color of his skin.
“And we should celebrate the Department’s commitment to marriage equality, as more and more of this country makes progress in what you have called one of ‘the defining civil rights challenges of our time.’
“Mr. Attorney General, your leadership on these and other issues has been invaluable. Of course, throughout your tenure, you have been asked to do all this and more with fewer and fewer resources. If you can give us any guidance as to the effect of the draconian Ryan budget proposal on the Department of Justice, we would like to engage with you on that topic as well.
“I would like to focus the balance of my time on one overriding issue: our collective effort to roll back government surveillance of U.S. persons. Much of our recent debate has focused on how to end the National Security Agency’s bulk collection of telephone records under Section 215 of the USA PATRIOT Act. Ending that program, and correcting the deeply troubling legal argument at its foundation, are of paramount importance. But the President’s proposal, and the proposal advanced by some on the House Intelligence Committee deal only with Section 215. In other words, they focus on one program used to access one database collected under one legal authority. The problem is far more complicated than that narrow lens implies - and in his January 17th speech, President Obama committed to much more.
“First, the President instructed you, Mr. Attorney General, to ‘institute reforms that place additional restrictions on the government’s ability to retain, search, and use in criminal cases’ the content of communications intercepted under Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. On March 28, in a letter to Senator Wyden, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper confirmed that the government mines this data for information about U.S. persons. Section 702 implicates content, not metadata. Under any other circumstance, the government would require individualized suspicion and probable cause to seize these communications. The FISA Amendments Act was never intended to authorize backdoor surveillance of U.S. persons, and the Department of Justice should work with this Committee to correct any impression to the contrary.
“Second, the President asked the Attorney General to ‘amend how we use National Security Letters’ so that gag orders ‘will not be indefinite, and will terminate within a fixed time.’ I view this modest amendment as the bare minimum change necessary to the NSL regime in light of what the public now knows about government surveillance. And yet, this Committee has received no indication that this reform is underway at the Department of Justice. Mr. Attorney General, I hope we will hear news of this development in your testimony today.
“Third, President Obama recognized that there is ‘an inevitable bias within the intelligence community… to collect more information about the world, not less.’ That bias is consistent with their mission to maintain national security - but national security is not the only value we hold dear. We must also be vigilant against government overreach, and protect our constitutional rights to privacy and free association. In the Congress, this Committee has always been the proper forum for a discussion about civil rights, especially in the national security context. In the executive branch, that role falls to the Department of Justice - and specifically, Mr. Attorney General, to you. This country would be well served by your leadership on this issue. In years past, the Department of Justice and the House Judiciary Committee have worked together to draft, pass, and implement the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, the USA PATRIOT Act, and the FISA Amendments Act. We should renew that partnership without delay, Attorney General Holder, and move the USA FREEDOM Act through this Committee with all necessary speed.
“I look forward to your testimony, Mr. Attorney General, and I yield back.”