05.19.15

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

In just 12 days, Section 215 of the USA PATRIOT Act, along with two other surveillance authorities, will expire.  And once again, Senate Republican leadership is scrambling at the last minute to avoid a crisis of its own making.

Last year, I urged the Senate to pass the USA FREEDOM Act of 2014.  We all knew that the expiration date for these surveillance authorities was right around the corner.  We knew that May 31st would arrive quickly in the new Congress.  I did not want our intelligence community to face a period of uncertainty leading up to the sunset.  And I did not want the American people to have billions of their phone records stocked away in a government database any longer.  That is why we spent months holding six public hearings in the Judiciary Committee, and even more months negotiating a bipartisan bill that garnered the support of the administration, the intelligence community, privacy groups, and the technology industry.

Unfortunately, my attempts to avoid this last-minute chaos were blocked by the Republican leader last year.  He said this was a matter to wait for the new Congress and that the new Republican majority would have rigorous committee process for important issues.  Five months into the new Republican majority, and with the deadline looming, the new majority leader just now is turning his attention to this issue.  The Republican-led Senate Committees have not taken steps toward reauthorization or reform.  Instead, the majority leader proposes a 60-day extension of a program that a federal court of appeals has just ruled is unlawful, apparently to allow one of his committee chairman to develop a last-minute “back-up plan.”

The House of Representatives will not pass a 60-day extension, nor should it.  We should not extend this illegal program for one more day – and we do not need to do so.

That is because we have a responsible solution, the only responsible solution.  Broad consensus has developed around the bipartisan USA FREEDOM Act of 2015.  The Attorney General and the Director of National Intelligence wrote a letter in support of the bill, and the FBI Director told me he supports it.  This past weekend, the former chairman and ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee advocated for passage of this legislation in the Baltimore Sun.  I ask unanimous consent that these materials be placed in the record. 

Most importantly, last week the House of Representatives passed the USA FREEDOM Act with an overwhelming vote of 338 to 88.  Now the Senate should pass it too. 

We can keep our country safe without a government database of billions of Americans’ phone records.  Richard Clarke is a former counterterrorism official who spent six months examining this program as a member of the President’s Review Group.  He has concluded that the program has “no benefit.”  We do not need it.  Americans do not want it. 

I fear that if Congress does not end this bulk collection program, it will only open the door to the next dragnet surveillance program.  Next time it will not just be phone records.  It might be location information, or medical records, or credit card records.  That is why it is so important to put a stop to this now. 

Some will say Congress does not need to act because the Second Circuit has already ruled that this program is illegal.  I agree with the court’s conclusion, and I hope that this panel decision carries the day.   But there are other pending lawsuits, and we will not know for months or even years how the courts ultimately will rule on this issue.  In addition, the USA FREEDOM Act does not just end bulk collection under Section 215 and the other national security authorities.  It also contains other important reforms that cannot be won through legal challenges, such as new transparency measures and a panel of experts from which the FISA Court can draw on for amicus support.  Congress must act.  We cannot leave this to the courts.  

Congress does not have to go over the brink.  The USA FREEDOM Act is a responsible solution that can pass both chambers today.  Its enactment will ensure that these expiring provisions do not sunset.  I urge Senators to support it.

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