Patriot Act author: ‘Seizing phone records of millions of innocent people is excessive and un-American’

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Following a report that the government has been collecting the telephone records of millions of Verizon customers under a Patriot Act provision, the author of that legislation expressed dismay at the administration’s interpretation of the law.

“I do not believe the broadly drafted [Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court] order is consistent with the requirements of the Patriot Act. Seizing phone records of millions of innocent people is excessive and un-American,” Wisconsin Republican Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner said in a statement Thursday.

Sensenbrenner introduced the Patriot Act in 2001, shortly following the attacks on Sept. 11. President George W. Bush signed the legislation into law the same year.

In a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder Thursday, Sensenbrenner said he was “extremely disturbed by what appears to be an overbroad interpretation of the Act.”

“The Patriot Act was a careful balancing of national security interests and constitutional rights. While I believe we found an appropriate balance, I have always worried about potential abuses of the Act,” the Wisconsin congressman wrote to Holder.

The Verizon phone seizures were approved under the “business records” provision of the Patriot Act, and according to Sensenbrenner’s letter he had been on the lookout for potential abuses under this section.

“I has insisted upon sunsetting this provision in order to ensure Congress had an opportunity to reassess the impact the provision had on civil liberties. I also closely monitored and relied on testimony from the Administration about how the Act was being interpreted to ensure that abuses had not occurred,” he wrote to Holder.

Sensenbrenner further quoted March 2011 testimony before the Judiciary Committee from Acting Assistant Attorney General Todd Hinnen — saying that Hinnen’s assertion that the section was being used to “obtain driver’s license records, hotel records, car rental records, apartment leasing records, credit cards records and the like. It has never been used against a library to obtain circulation records. … On average, we seek and obtain section 215 orders less than 40 times per year” — gave the committee the impression that the “business records” provision was being used “sparingly and for specific materials.”

“The recently released FISA order, however, could not have been drafted more broadly,” Sensenbrenner wrote. “I do not believe the released FISA order is consistent with the requirements of the Patriot Act. How could the phone records of so many Americans be relevant to an authorized investigation s required by the Act?”

Sensenbrenner further requested that Holder answer to the reasons the order was so broad, whether he believed the order was consistent with the Act or the FBI’s interpretation of it, and for clarification on what the FBI believes to be the limits on obtaining information under the provision, by next week.

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