The House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed HR 2048, the USA Freedom Act last week. The bill is an attempt by lawmakers to rein in the NSA and fix the infamous "business records program," which uses Section 215 of the Patriot Act to order telephone companies to hand over Americans' daily calling records. When asked if the Senate would take up the bill, Senate Intelligence Chair Richard Burr said, "The program as designed is effective, and members are reluctant to change things that are effective just because of public opinion."
But isn't public opinion exactly what Senator Burr should have an ear towards as the people of North Carolina's representative? When it comes to public opinion, Americans are loud and clear that they not only want the specific calling records program to end, but that they are also incredibly dubious about the NSA's collection practices.
His reliance on the program being effective ignores the conclusions of two independent investigations tasked with looking at the calling records program. The first, appointed by President Obama and Called the President's Review Group on Signals Intelligence Capabilities, concluded the program was not effective and should be stopped. Another investigation led by an independent executive agency called the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board concluded the program as not only ineffective, but that it was illegal. The government had no statutory basis to be running the collection. In addition, both the Director of National Intelligence and the Attorney General have written a letter expressing the need to reform the authorities, and essentially end the current program as it currently is.
The judiciary has also weighed in. Last week, the Second Circuit court ruled the government's program illegal. The court held that the NSA’s telephone records program went far beyond what Congress authorized when it passed Section 215 of the Patriot Act in 2001 and completely rejected the government’s secret reinterpretation of Section 215 that has served as the basis for the telephone records collection program.
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As the chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee—a committee originally created to ensure Congress kept a watchful eye over an Intelligence Community with a history of spying on innocent Americans—it's his duty to advance the interests of North Carolinians and everyday Americans. A duty that, when combined with the overwhelming evidence, demands he stop the program and vote against any short term reauthorization.
If the Executive branch, the Judicial branch, and two independent commissions can't convince Senator Burr, then maybe their fellow lawmakers can. On May 13, the House overwhelmingly decided to end the program and rein in the NSA. The USA Freedom Act, which ends the program, passed the House with over 330 votes. And last year 58 Senators voted in favor of Senator Patrick Leahy and Mike Lee's reform bill. While the vote may have been for tepid reform, it's reform that signals Congress is ready to stop the illegal program run by the NSA.
At the minimum, it's time for Congress to speak loudly and clearly on the issue. Tell your lawmaker now to vote against any short term reauthorization.