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Tuesday, May 12, 2015

 4:37 PM 

Column: Showdown over domestic surveillance looms

This is an excerpt from Nicole Duran's weekly DC Wrap column. Sign up to get the full column in your inbox each week.

The House plans a vote this week on Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner's USA Freedom Act, only days after a key federal appeals court ruling.

Sensenbrenner's bill would alter and reauthorize some of the most controversial provisions of the USA Patriot Act. Just last week a federal appeals court ruled the intelligence community's domestic phone records database is illegal.

Revelations in mid-2013 by Edward Snowden that the National Security Agency was collecting telephone "metadata" from Americans' phone records in bulk prompted calls to reign in the spy agency's surveillance powers. The NSA and other intelligence agencies relied on a broad interpretation of Section 215 of the Patriot Act for their power to sift through the timestamp information of Americans' phone calls.

Last week the 2nd Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals struck down the program.

"Congress never intended Section 215 to allow bulk collection," Patriot Act author Sensenbrenner stated in response. "This program is illegal and based on a blatant misinterpretation of the law."

The Menomonee Falls Republican and his Senate partner, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., set about rewriting that controversial section, among others, shortly after the Snowden revelations. Their ultimate product, the USA Freedom Act, eventually won the support of the Obama administration, the intelligence community, the technology sector and privacy advocates. Approved by the House, the bill nearly became law last year but fell two votes shy of breaking a Senate filibuster in the waning days of the 113th Congress.

Now facing a June 1 deadline--when Section 215, roving wiretaps and the so-called "lone-wolf" provision sunset--and the appeals court call for Congress to weigh in, the House is set to again take the lead and pass the Sensenbrenner-Leahy legislation.

The Republican congressional leadership is divided, however, on how to proceed. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky wants to push through a short-term extension of the expiring provisions, which has drawn filibuster threats from the likes of Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., a USA Freedom Act backer.

"The USA Freedom Act protects civil liberties and bolsters national security," Sensenbrenner said about his bill. "It has been carefully negotiated to strike a delicate balance, and I expect it to again pass the House with overwhelming bipartisan support. I implore my colleagues in the Senate to follow our lead, pass this important legislation and send it to the president.

"Letting Section 215 and other surveillance authorities sunset would hamper the ability of the intelligence community to protect our national security. And a clean reauthorization would be irresponsible, allowing the blatant misinterpretation of the law to continue. The USA Freedom Act is the only responsible path forward."

Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Oshkosh, voted against taking up the USA Freedom Act last year. Now chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, he has been noncommittal about whether he supports this year's version of the bill and brief about what kind of rewrite or overhaul he would like to see.

Effective intelligence gathering with congressional oversight is the "first line of defense," Johnson said in an interview with WisPolitics before the appeals court ruling.

"They're patriots," he said about intelligence agency workers. "They're not looking to read random Americans' emails for prurient interest."

Since the court ruling, Johnson has tipped his hand a bit more.

"It's important to note that the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals did not rule it unconstitutional," he stated on CNN's "State of the Union" on Sunday. "They just said it was not being applied properly based on the law that was written. So we need to take a very careful look at the way we write these, quite honestly, very complex laws."

Read Duran's column for more on this and other DC issues

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