WASHINGTON - A senior Republican lawmaker who was the chief congressional architect of the anti-terror 2001 USA Patriot Act now wants to scale back some of the counterterror laws he once championed, citing an overreach by the National Security Agency that has proven him wrong.
Rep. James Sensenbrenner says he was "appalled and angry" to learn this year that the NSA was sweeping up millions of Americans' phone records each day. He says that goes far beyond the intent of his legislation, which was enacted weeks after the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks against the U.S.
Both at home and abroad, anger over the surveillance programs that NSA leaker Edward Snowden revealed in June has given rise to a new round of plans to limit U.S. snooping. But the government is sharply divided over how to assure Americans and the world at large that their private lives are not being invaded while still protecting against terror attacks. It's likely that lawmakers who oversee competing interests of justice and intelligence issues will end up with a compromise that limits some domestic surveillance.
On Tuesday, Sensenbrenner, a Republican, and Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy, a Democrat, offered legislation to overhaul the NSA. Already, the bill has bipartisan backing in the House and Senate and support from a broad array of support groups that ranges from the National Rifle Association to the American Civil Liberties Union.
"We have to make a balance between security and civil liberties," Sensenbrenner said in an interview last week. "And the reason the intelligence community has gotten itself into such trouble is they apparently do not see why civil liberties have got to be protected."
That's a turnabout of sorts for Sensenbrenner, who once accused privacy advocates of "exaggeration and hyperbole" for raising alarms of government spying when the Patriot Act was re-authorized in 2006.
"He was really convinced, I think unfortunately at this point, that the intelligence community was not going to misuse this authority," said Caroline Fredrickson, president of the American Constitution Society for Law and Policy, who during the 2006 debate was Washington director of the ACLU. "And I think perhaps some of his temper now can be explained by the fact that they really proved him wrong."
Two NSA programs that aim to intercept terrorist messages are at the heart of the push for an overhaul of U.S. surveillance, which has revealed a split between two congressional committees that oversee either judiciary issues or the intelligence community. The Obama administration is waiting to see what Congress does before it offers its own overhaul plans, although it is reviewing U.S. intelligence programs in the wake of the NSA controversy.
The first NSA program collects telephone records and the other sweeps up Internet traffic and email by the millions, if not the billions. Both target only foreign suspects outside the United States and are not supposed to look at the content of conversations or messages by American citizens.
With limited evidence showing why the telephone surveillance is important, congressional aides in both the House and Senate predict that lawmakers ultimately will eliminate it — but continue sweeping up Internet traffic and email. That could be a politically attractive compromise for both Congress and the Obama administration as each seeks to soothe outrage over the phone spying both at home and abroad.
Associated Press writer Lara Jakes contributed to this report. Follow Jakes on Twitter at: https://twitter.com/larajakesAP
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