04.28.15

Statement of Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Ranking Member, Senate Judiciary Committee, On the Introduction of the USA FREEDOM Act of 2015

Almost two years ago, Vermonters and the American people learned for the first time the shocking details of the National Security Agency’s dragnet collection program. Relying on a deeply flawed interpretation of Section 215 of the USA PATRIOT Act, the NSA has been indiscriminately sweeping up Americans’ private telephone records for years.

It is long past time to end this bulk collection program. Americans have made clear that they will not tolerate such intrusion into their private lives. The President has called for an end to bulk collection under Section 215. The Director of National Intelligence and the Attorney General supported legislation last year that would have shut this program down. National security experts have testified that the program is not necessary. And the American technology industry has called for meaningful reform of this program because it has lost billions to competitors in the international marketplace due to a decline in the public’s trust.

Yet in the face of this overwhelming consensus, Congress has failed to act. Last year, when we had an opportunity to pass my bipartisan legislation to end this program and reform other surveillance authorities, some members of this body chose to play political games rather than engage in constructive debate.

The time for posturing and theatrics is over. It is time for Congress to answer to the American people.

Today, I – along with Senator Mike Lee – introduce the USA FREEDOM Act of 2015. This bipartisan bill is also being introduced in the House today by Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, Ranking Member John Conyers, and a large bipartisan group of House Judiciary Committee members.

If enacted, our bill will be the most significant reform to government surveillance authorities since the USA PATRIOT Act was passed nearly 14 years ago. Most importantly, our bill will definitively end the NSA’s bulk collection program under Section 215. It also guarantees unprecedented transparency about government surveillance programs, allows the FISA Court to appoint an amicus to assist it in significant cases, and brings the national security letter statutes in line with the First Amendment.

The bipartisan, bicameral bill we introduce today is the product of intense and careful negotiations. It enacts strong, meaningful reforms while ensuring that the Intelligence Community has the tools it needs to keep this country safe.

Some will say that this bill does not go far enough. I agree. But in order to secure broader support for reform legislation that can pass both the House and Senate and be signed into law, changes had to be made to the bill that I introduced last year. This new bill does not contain all the reforms that I want. It contains some provisions I believe are unnecessary but that were 1 added to secure support from the House Intelligence Committee. But we should pass it and continue fighting for more reform.

I have been in the United States Senate for more than 40 years – and I have learned that when there is a chance to make real progress, we have to seize it. This is not my first fight, and certainly will not be my last. I have a responsibility to Vermonters and the American people to do everything I can to end the dragnet collection of their phone records under Section 215. And I know for a fact that the upcoming June 1 sunset of Section 215 is our best opportunity for real reform. We cannot squander it.

Last year, a broad and bipartisan coalition worked together to craft reasonable and responsible legislation. Critics resorted to scare tactics. They would not even agree to debate the bill. I hope that we do not see a repeat of that ill-fated strategy again this year. The American people have had enough of delay and brinksmanship. Congress now has an opportunity to show leadership and govern responsibly.

The intelligence community is deeply concerned about the possibility of a legislative stand-off that could result in the expiration of Section 215 altogether. The USA FREEDOM Act is a path forward that has the support of the administration, privacy groups, the technology industry – and most importantly, the American people. I urge Congressional leaders to take up and swiftly pass the USA FREEDOM Act of 2015 – because I will not vote for reauthorization of Section 215 without meaningful reform.

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