05.22.15

Statement of Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Ranking Member, Senate Judiciary Committee, In Support of the USA FREEDOM Act of 2015, HR 2048

For more than two years, I have worked with members of Congress from both parties and in both chambers to develop the USA FREEDOM Act of 2015.  It is a common-sense surveillance reform bill that protects Americans’ privacy, while also ensuring our national security.  The bill does not go nearly as far as the bill that I first introduced in October 2013 with Congressman Sensenbrenner.  Nor does it go as far as the USA FREEDOM Act that was filibustered last November by Senate Republicans.  The incoming Majority Leader was able to rally his members to delay reform last year, but we should not delay it any further.  Americans deserve to have their privacy restored.  No more excuses.

The USA FREEDOM Act of 2015 has the support of the administration, the Director of National Intelligence, the Attorney General, the FBI Director, a super-majority of the House of Representatives, the technology industry, privacy and civil liberties groups, librarians, and even the NRA.  And the support for our bill continues to grow.  Just yesterday, national security experts at the conservative Heritage Foundation concluded that the USA FREEDOM Act “strikes a balance between maintaining our national security capabilities and protecting privacy and civil liberties.”  This is a reasonable and responsible bill.  And more importantly, it is the only option left for any Senator who wants to avoid a sunset of the surveillance authorities at midnight on May 31st

Last year, when the current Senate Majority Leader led the filibuster of the USA FREEDOM Act, we were told that the Senate needed more time to consider the issues, and that the new Senate would take up the matter under new leadership.  Although we have known these sunsets were coming for years, the Republican leadership in the Senate has done nothing this year on this urgent matter.  No public hearings.  No committee mark ups.  In contrast, the House leadership has acted responsibly and decisively.  They moved the USA FREEDOM Act of 2015 through the Judiciary Committee and passed our bipartisan bill overwhelmingly.  We have had significant debate on this issue this week.  Senators from all political perspectives have spoken at length on the Senate floor about their views.  Most of those Senators have urged us to reform the government’s bulk collection program, but there have also been voices urging more surveillance.  We have heard the familiar fear-mongering and demands for a data retention mandate on private telecom companies.  I disagree with those Senators who have voiced that perspective but they have no doubt been heard. 

Unfortunately, the Senate Majority Leader has run out the clock in the Senate.  The House has completed its work and left town.  They are not coming back until after the surveillance authorities are set to expire.  And the House leadership has made clear that they will not pass an extension.  So the decision before the Senate is whether to let the three provisions at issue expire or to pass the bipartisan and bicameral USA FREEDOM Act of 2015. 

We all now know that the NSA has for years been using Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act to sweep up phone records of innocent Americans, without any connection to terrorism.  We also know that the NSA used a similar legal theory for years to collect massive amounts of metadata related to billions of emails sent to and from innocent Americans.  We must no longer allow that sort of bulk collection on innocent Americans.  The American people oppose this indiscriminate dragnet collection of their records, the courts have found it to be unlawful, and the House of Representatives has voted overwhelmingly to end this program through the USA FREEDOM Act.  Now is the time for the Senate to act.

Last November, when Senator McConnell convinced his caucus to block the USA FREEDOM Act, I warned that we would not have much time in the new Congress, and that the American people were demanding action.  But yet here we are – with Congress racing against the clock to act before the sunsets take effect next weekend.  The Senate leadership has manufactured this crisis.  They hope that enough Senators will be scared by the prospect of these authorities expiring that they will blindly vote in favor of a clean extension.  We have all seen this movie before.  We know that opponents of the USA FREEDOM Act simply want to delay again.

Many Americans may wonder what have opponents of the USA FREEDOM Act been doing for the past six months?  The rapidly approaching sunset has been on the books for years, and it is not as if this deadline snuck up on the Majority Leader or the Chairman who is just now considering alternative proposals.  Remember – we are days away from the expiration date.  Despite this urgency and the extensive debate we have been having for many months, the only bill that has been filed by opponents of the USA FREEDOM Act is a two-month rubberstamp of the PATRIOT Act provisions – a bill that the Senate sponsors know cannot pass the House.

I read in the press that there may be an alternative proposal in the works, and that it may include a provision to keep the bulk collection program in place for two more years.  This is entirely unnecessary.  Just this week, the NSA Director stated in a letter to Leaders McConnell and Reid that the NSA only needs 180 days to transition to the new, targeted program established by the USA FREEDOM Act.  Not two years.  The 180-day transition period has been part of the USA FREEDOM Act for more than a year, and during all the negotiations about the bill no one in the NSA or the intelligence community ever raised a concern with me about this provision.  I ask unanimous consent that a copy of the May 20th letter from Admiral Rogers be entered as part of the Record.  More importantly, everyone knows this last-ditch attempt at further delay is just too late. 

At this point, the Senate has two options.  The Senate can pass the USA FREEDOM Act, or it can let these provisions expire.  A growing majority of the Senate supports the USA FREEDOM Act.  If we pass it today, the President can sign it tomorrow.  And the intelligence community can move forward with the certainty it needs to protect the American people. 

Senator Lee and I, along with a bipartisan group of Senators ranging from Senator Durbin to Senator Heller to Senator Schumer to Senator Cruz, are pushing for the responsible path forward.  We have worked for two years on this bill to end the NSA’s bulk collection of Americans’ phone records.  The Majority Leader has run out the clock but there is a responsible choice before us.  We must pass the USA FREEDOM Act today. 

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