Patriot Act author blasts government collection of phone records

Brendan Bordelon | Contributor

The Republican author of the Patriot Act angrily rejected the Justice Department’s argument that one of the law’s provisions authorizes the seizure of all Americans’ telephone records, warning that Congress may cancel the program, The Washington Post reports.

In a hearing of the House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday, Wisconsin Rep. James Sensenbrenner blasted Deputy Attorney General James Cole for his department’s interpretation of Section 215 of the Patriot Act, which gives the government the ability to obtain business records relevant to an ongoing terrorism investigation.

“The ‘relevant’ standard was put in [as an] attempt to limit what the intelligence community could be able to get pursuant to Section 215,” Sensenbrenner said.

The congressman questioned the government’s claim that every phone call in the United States is relevant to a terrorism investigation, a contention they used to justify the collection of millions of personal cell phone records from Verizon.

“Doesn’t that make a mockery of the legal standard, because you’re trying to have it both ways?” he asked.

Cole attempted to mount a defense but was quickly cut off.

“You sure are,” the congressman continued, “because you’re saying ‘Have the court authorize to get us the records of all the phone calls that are made to and from phones in the United States,’ including people who have nothing to do with any type of a terrorist investigation, and then what you’re saying is ‘We’ll decide what to pick out of that massive — maybe a billion phone calls a day — on what we’re looking at,’ rather than saying ‘This person is a target.'”

“Why don’t you get an authorization for only that person’s telephone records?” he finished testily.

Sensenbrenner took Cole to task for a Justice Department letter that claimed Section 215 allowed for the storage of billions of phone records, even though the DOJ’s own letter states that “most of the records in the data set are not associated with terrorist activity.”

The lawmaker threatened that unless the government began interpreting the Patriot Act in the manner Congress intended, lawmakers would move to rescind the government’s authority to collect those records altogether.

“Section 215 expires at the end of 2015,” he said. “Unless you realize you’ve got a problem, this is not going to be renewed.”

Sensenbrenner was once one of the most ardent defenders of the Patriot Act and government surveillance.

“This law has not trampled on anybody’s civil rights,” he said on the House floor in 2011. “Where there was a constitutional problem with Section 215, it was fixed in the reauthorization.”

“I’m getting a little bit irritated at the scaremongering that has been going on about this law when no provision has been held unconstitutional by a court,” he concluded at the time.

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