The PJ Tatler

Rising Threat of Attacks Resurrects Debate Over Government Surveillance Powers

Sen. Dan Coats (R-Ind.) argued in a USA Today op-ed this week that now is the wrong time to dial back surveillance powers of the federal government, arguing that the USA FREEDOM Act in Congress “would render our counterterrorism tools less agile and reliable.”

But the sponsor of the Senate version, Judiciary Committee Chairman Pat Leahy (D-Vt.), argued for “a common sense way of saying collect information, but do it in a way where you protect the interests of innocent people.”

The House version of the bill, sponsored by Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), passed in May. The Senate version — the full name of the bill is the Uniting and Strengthening America by Fulfilling Rights and Ensuring Effective Discipline Over Monitoring Act — has 18 co-sponsors but hasn’t advanced.

The GOP co-sponsors are Sens. Dean Heller (R-Nev.), Ted Cruz (R-Texas), and Mike Lee (R-Utah).

Coats noted that the Senate Intelligence Committee arrived at a compromise FISA Improvements Act “to enshrine safeguards in law for the first time.”

“Our bill does not end the call-records program, thus preserving an important counterterrorism tool,” Coats wrote. “However, it prohibits access to phone data except under specific procedures and restrictions, and it bars the collection of content.”

“Currently, Americans and Europeans are joining the Islamic State, the wealthiest and most brutal terrorist group in history. By exploiting the passports of Western members, ISIL-trained operatives can come to our shores far more easily than the 9/11 hijackers,” he added. “The government’s interest is the most compelling imaginable: To the best of our ability, never again allow an attack on our homeland that costs innocent lives.”

Responding on CNN, Leahy said “if you collect everything, in some ways you have nothing.”

The chairman added that if the NSA had kept tabs on its own house, “you never would have had an Edward Snowden.”

“I mean this was pure carelessness on the part of the NSA. They talked about how well they protect everything. They couldn’t even protect their greatest secrets from a subcontractor,” Leahy said.

He said drafting a bill that makes “sure you go after the real targets” is why it has support from the right and left.

“Those of us who lived back in the time of J. Edgar Hoover realize how tyrannical our government could be if it was allowed to spy on everybody with no checks and balances. We — you’re always going to find something that people say, oh my God, look at this. We’ve got a terrorist attack in Canada,” Leahy said.

“We forget one of the biggest terrorist attacks in this country was Timothy McVeigh in Oklahoma City, a retired military person, church-going American, and nothing that they talked about in all of these possible pieces of legislation would have stopped Timothy McVeigh from carrying out a horrific murderous attack on Americans.”