Representative James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), a member of the House Judiciary Committee, is becoming something of a character in a modern parable as Congress continues to quarrel over the legality of aspects of the Nation’s burgeoning surveillance state. The lesson Sensenbrenner’s role reveals: Those responsible for the creation of a monster are also responsible for keeping the beast under control.
Sensenbrenner was one of the original authors of the Patriot Act. That law, created amid panic following the 9/11 terror attacks, opened the door for many of the surveillance abuses that the government carries out today. Specifically, the law contains some of the key legal justifications that supporters of the National Security Agency’s embattled surveillance techniques reference in efforts to stifle questions about the Constitutionality of the agency’s actions.
Sensenbrenner recently told The Hill that much of the NSA’s sweeping data collection was green-lighted following the reauthorization of the Patriot Act in 2006. This was about the same time the lawmaker was stepping down from his position as chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.
Section 215 of the original Patriot Act, Sensenbrenner explained, allows only information “relevant” to terrorism. But lawmakers, either unconcerned with privacy or over-concerned with locating terror in every nook and cranny of society, allowed the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to expand NSA’s collection authority to all digital communication.
“I don’t think the oversight was vigorously done by the Judiciary Committee,” Sensenbrenner told the newspaper. “When I was running the Judiciary Committee, it was being vigorously done.”
The lawmaker is currently backing the USA Freedom Act, which would place major limitations on government surveillance power, including a provision to put an end to the NSA calls program.
Meanwhile, Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) has presented opposing legislation in the form of a bill that would codify the most overreaching NSA activities while providing for modest transparency requirements.
Sensenbrenner told The Hill that the Senator’s bill is a joke, amounting essentially to: “If you like your NSA, you can keep it.”
Clapper also noted that, if Congress doesn’t take steps to quell the NSA’s power now, time will provide a victory for opponents of government surveillance as intelligence agency’s may lose even legitimate terror-fighting tools entirely following votes to reauthorize the Patriot Act in 2015 and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act in 2017. Public displeasure would likely condemn any politician voting in favor.