Transcript: Sen. Patrick Leahy’s remarks on the oversight of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act on Oct. 2, 2013

Partial transcript of remarks by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) on the oversight of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and the National Security Agency (NSA). The Senate Judiciary Committee hearing was held on Oct. 2, 2013:

…As we continue to re-examine the intelligence community’s use of FISA authorities, let’s be clear that no one under-estimates the threats our country continues to face or the difficulty of identifying any of those threats.

We all agree that we should equip the intelligence community with the necessary and appropriate tools to help keep us safe.

But… I hope we can also agree there has to be limits on the surveillance powers we give to the government. Just because something is technologically possible and just because something may be deemed technically legal does not mean that it’s the right thing to do.

This summer, many Americans learned for the first time that Section 215 of the USA Patriot Act has been for years secretly interpreted to authorize the collection of American’s phone records on an unprecedented scale.

The American public also learned more about the government’s collection of Internet content data through the use of Section 702 of FISA.

Since the committee’s last hearing on these revelations in late July, we’ve learned a great deal more.

We’ve learned that the NSA’s engaged in repeated substantial legal violations in its implementation of both Section 215 and Section 702 of FISA.

For example, NSA collected without a warrant the content of tens of thousands of domestic emails of Americans. NSA violated a FISA court order by regularly stretching the Section 215 phone records database without meeting the standards imposed by the court.

These repeated violations led to several reprimands by the FISA court for what the FISA court called a systemic non-compliance by the government. The court also admonished the government for making a series of substantial misrepresentations to the court.

Now, we’ve seen no evidence of intentional abuse of FISA authorities but the pattern is deeply troubling.

We’ve also learned that NSA in 2011 started searching for Americans’ communications in its Section 702 database – a database that contains the contents of communications acquired without individualized court orders.

And then this past weekend, all of you have seen the front page story in the New York Times reported the NSA is engaging in sophisticated analysis of both domestic and international metadata to determine the social connections of Americans.

So, we have all these revelations. It’s no surprise the intelligence community faces a trust deficit.

And after years of raising concerns about the scope of FISA authorities – as I have and others have – and the need for stronger oversight, I’m glad that many members of Congress from both parties are interested in taking a close look at these programs in both the government’s legal policy justifications for them and adequacy of existing oversight regimes.

I think it’s time for a change, and I think additional transparency and oversight are important parts of that change. I think we have to do more.

So I’m working on a comprehensive legislative solution with Congressman [Jim] Sensenbrenner (R-Wisconsin), the Chairman of the Crime and Terrorism Subcommittee in the House, as well as other members of Congress, again, across the political spectrum of both parties – a bipartisan, bicameral legislation to address Section 215 and Section 702 and a range of surveillance authorities that raise some of my concerns.

Our legislation would end Section 215 bulk collection. It would also ensure that…national security letters could not be used to authorize bulk collection. The government has not made its case that bulk collection of domestic and foreign records is an effective counter-terrorism tool especially in light of the intrusion of Americans’ privacy.

In addition…the legal justification for this bulk collection is strained at best. I’ve looked at the classified list of cases involving Section 215. I find it to be unconvincing. As the Deputy Director of the NSA himself acknowledged in our last hearing a couple weeks ago, there’s no evidence that Section 215 phone records collections helped to thwart dozens or even several terrorist plots.

In addition to stopping bulk collections, our legislation will improve judicial review – and I think this is extremely important – by the FISA court, enhance the public report in the use of a range of surveillance activities. It would require inspector general reviews of the implementation of these authorities. It would put into law requests that Sen. [Chuck] Grassley and I have made and many members of this committee made to the inspector general for the intelligence community.

It’s common sense. It’s a bipartisan bill.

So I look forward to working this in the coming months with both the Senate and the House and others who care about this.

And I do appreciate the concrete steps that both Director [James] Clapper and Gen. [Keith] Alexander made in recent months to brief members of Congress. I’ve been, as you know, to many of those briefings and they move toward more transparency further declassification of documents…

You know, we all agree that we have to ensure our nation’s security. We also have to restore the trust of the American people in our intelligence community. And fundamentally, we have to protect the liberties that have kept us great in a diversified democracy and the envy of countries around the world because of our democracy.

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