Statement of Senator Patrick Leahy On Amendments to the CJS Appropriations Bill

Statement of Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.),
Ranking Member, Senate Judiciary Committee,
On Amendments to the CJS Appropriations Bill

June 21, 2016

After voting down sensible gun measures earlier this week, Republicans want to change the subject. They want to resort to scare tactics to divert the attention of the American people. Now they are offering an overbroad proposal that they argue is needed to keep this country safe.

Let’s be clear about what we need to stay safe. We need universal background checks for firearms purchases. We need to give the FBI the authority to deny guns to individuals suspected of terrorism. Senate Republicans rejected those sensible measures last night, but we still have the chance to give law enforcement real tools to fight terrorism and violent crime. We should strengthen our laws to make it easier to prosecute firearms traffickers and straw purchasers who put guns in the hands of terrorists and criminals. And we need to fund the FBI and the Justice Department so they have the resources they need to combat acts of terrorism and hate. Those are the elements of the amendment that Senator Mikulski, Baldwin, Nelson and I have filed – and those are among the actions that Congress could take to protect this country.

Instead Republicans are proposing to reduce independent oversight of FBI surveillance of Americans’ Internet activities, and make permanent a law that as of last year had never been used. And I should note that this is the same law that the Republican leadership in the Senate allowed to expire just last year.

In case there is any confusion, I will state it clearly: The McCain amendment would not have prevented the Orlando attack.

The amendment would eliminate the requirement for a court order when the FBI wants to obtain detailed information about Americans’ Internet activities in national security investigations. This could cover websites Americans have visited; extensive information on who Americans communicate with through email, chat, and text messages; and where and when Americans log onto the Internet and into social media accounts. Over time, this information would provide highly revealing details about Americans’ personal lives. The government should not be able to obtain this information whenever it wants by simply issuing a subpoena.

Senator Cornyn and others have argued forcefully that we cannot prevent people on the terrorist watch list from obtaining firearms without due process and judicial review. They say we need an independent decision-maker. Yet at the same time they are proposing to remove judicial approval when the FBI wants to find out what websites Americans are visiting. The FBI already has authority to obtain this information – if it obtains a court order under Section 215 of the USA PATRIOT Act. In an emergency where there is not time to go to court, the USA FREEDOM Act allows the FBI to obtain this information before getting judicial approval. So this amendment is unnecessary.

This amendment is opposed by major technology companies and privacy groups across the political spectrum – from FreedomWorks to Google to the ACLU. I ask unanimous consent that a letter from nearly 40 organizations and companies opposing this proposal be placed in the record.

The Judiciary Committee also should study this proposal before it proceeds. The Judiciary Committee has not held a hearing to examine whether this expansion of the NSL statute is necessary, or how it would affect Americans’ privacy and civil liberties.

Rather than trying to distract us from their opposition to common-sense gun measures, Republicans should support actions that will actually help protect us, like those in the amendment filed by Senator Mikulski, Senator Baldwin, Senator Nelson, and myself. They should support emergency FBI funding. They should support funding for the Civil Rights Division to help protect the LGBT community, the Muslim American community, and the African American community from hate crimes and discrimination. And they should support my proposal to make it harder for terrorists and criminals to evade background checks by turning to firearms traffickers and straw purchasers. This is a provision that I have developed with Senator Collins and that has been strongly supported by law enforcement.

As we saw in San Bernardino, terrorists can acquire assault rifles by simply using a friend to purchase the guns for them. Yet prosecuting such individuals for firearms trafficking has proven to be an extremely difficult task. My proposal will fix these laws. It will provide law enforcement the tools it needs to deter and prosecute those who traffic in firearms. And it will help to close another glaring loophole in our gun laws that allows terrorists and criminals to easily acquire powerful firearms.

I urge Senators to oppose the McCain amendment, and to support these measures that will actually help keep our country safe.


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