Jim Sensenbrenner, Civil Libertarian?
Will Wisconsin’s congressman protect us from Obama’s NSA surveillance?
Meet F. James Sensenbrenner, the new civil libertarian. The conservative Republican congressman from Wisconsin recently chose to publish an op ed in the liberal British newspaper, The Guardian, blasting President Barack Obama for his surveillance program.
Channeling George Orwell, Sensenbrenner fumed that “’Big Brother’ is watching. And he is monitoring the phone calls and digital communications of every American, as well as of any foreigners who make or receive calls to or from the United States.”
“It appears that no administration has ever peered more closely or intimately into the lives of innocent Americans. The president should immediately direct his administration to stop abusing the US constitution.”
For good measure, Sensenbrenner also wrote a letter to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder trumpeting a concern as to “whether our constitutional rights are secure.”
For anyone who worries about the intrusiveness of the administration’s surveillance program, Sensenbrenner’s comments are welcome. And the congressman is certainly in a position to push for changes in the PATRIOT Act he authored.
But so far, he has insisted that the PATRIOT Act as written does not allow the widespread surveillance of Americans, which has generated considerable skepticism from both the left and the right.
At the conservative National Review, the congressman is accused of “dissembling” and “rewriting” history. “Sensenbrenner does not appear to have read the law he ‘wrote,’” the headline declares.
“Sensenbrenner is disingenuously portraying the debate over the PATRIOT Act as a simple matter of black and white, as if he had been out there at the time saying, ‘Just go after alien terrorists and leave Americans alone.’ Not even close,” McCarthy contends.
On the left, Conor Friedersdorf at Atlantic Magazine wrote a piece called, “Admit It, Rep. Sensenbrenner: You Were Wrong About the Patriot Act.”
Sensenbrenner “has a curious history of insisting that it is good law, then feeling ‘betrayed’ by the people implementing it,” Friedersdorf writes. “For at least the third time, Sensenbrenner says that the FBI has betrayed the true intentions of the Patriot Act and violated the civil liberties of Americans. What ought to be obvious, by now, is that the law he wrote and championed — and defended against the notion that it would be abused — has been repeatedly abused because it is flawed. Civil liberties have repeatedly been violated because it doesn’t do enough to protect them.”
Yes, Friedersdorf likes italics and exclamation points. He wants us to fully understand that the abuse Sensenbrenner accuses Obama of “is exactly the sort of thing critics warned against!”
Among those critics was Wisconsin’s Democratic U.S. Senator Russ Feingold, who recently noted that “I first voted against the Patriot Act because much of it was simply an FBI wish list that included provisions allowing our government to go on fishing expeditions that collect information on virtually anyone.”
Critics have also questioned how Sensenbrenner could have been surprised at how the PATROT Act is being used, given a USA Today story that ran on May 11, 2006, which reported as follows:
“The National Security Agency has been secretly collecting the phone call records of tens of millions of Americans, using data provided by AT&T, Verizon and BellSouth, people with direct knowledge of the arrangement told USA TODAY.”
“The NSA program reaches into homes and businesses across the nation by amassing information about the calls of ordinary Americans–most of whom aren’t suspected of any crime. This program does not involve the NSA listening to or recording conversations. But the spy agency is using the data to analyze calling patterns in an effort to detect terrorist activity, sources said.”
“It’s the largest database ever assembled in the world,” said one… The agency’s goal is “to create a database of every call ever made” within the nation’s borders, this person added.
Sensenbrenner’s longtime senior Democratic counterpart on the Judiciary Committee, Rep. Jerrold Nadler has said the committee members “knew publicly from 2006 at least… about…the existence of a massive NSA database of . . . metadata from domestic phone calls. That was reported back then. We debated it in this committee and on the floor of the House in connection with the reauthorization I believe in 2012 and in 2008, at least several times.”
If Sensenbrenner needed further verification, as Adam Serwer at MSNBC has noted, the congressman could have attended classified briefings on the National Security Agency’s program over the last three years: “Two letters from the leadership of Senate intelligence committee in 2010 and 2011 obtained by MSNBC show that a series of closed-door briefings and reports on the Patriot Act were made available to lawmakers from both houses. A senior Obama administration official sent MSNBC a list showing at least six classified briefings or meetings on the Patriot Act between 2009 and 2011. And a former Justice department official who participated in the briefings said they offered specifics on the exact issues that Sensenbrenner claims were withheld.”
When asked by MSNBC whether Sensenbrenner had attended any of these meetings, his spokesperson Ben Miller declined to say specifically which meetings the congressman had attended. “But other legislators, including Democratic Senators Ron Wyden of Oregon and Mark Udall of Colorado gave specific warnings about the Patriot Act that foreshadowed the recent disclosures, suggesting that if Sensenbrenner had attended the briefings he would have known what was happening,” the story noted.
Paul Rosenzweig, who served as deputy assistant secretary for policy in the Department of Homeland Security during the Bush administration, told the Huffington Post the text of the Patriot Act is ambiguous and there is no mention of preventing data mining in the statute. “If [Sensenbrenner] was trying to… prevent what has happened, then the drafting [of the Patriot Act] was not as good as he wanted it to be,” Rosenzweig said.
At the National Review, McCarthy agreed, writing “There is nothing illegal or groundbreaking in the NSA’s metadata collection. Congressman Sensenbrenner came close to admitting as much when he told Sean Hannity that “we’re going to have to have some changes in Section 215 and maybe in the law that authorizes the FISA Court to do what it has done.”
Sensenbrenner, of course, could have proposed such a change back in 2006, when the USA Today story ran, and when the program was being run by a Republican president. Seven years later, he’s still in a position to champion reforms in the PATRIOT Act. It’s been two weeks since his interview with Hannity. Is he serious about his call to protect civil liberties? We’ll see.