Jim Sensenbrenner, Republican Author Of Patriot Act, Says NSA PRISM Surveillance Goes Too Far

PatAct President George W. Bush signs the Patriot Act into law with James Sensenbrenner at upper right.  Reuters

The author of the Patriot Act on Sunday continued his criticism of the National Security Agency’s widespread surveillance of U.S. citizens’ phone and digital records.

In a scathing article published in the Guardian -- the British paper that broke the story -- Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., accused President Barack Obama of falsely claiming that the controversial 2001 Patriot Act authorizes NSA surveillance. In fact, he said, the law was “designed to protect liberties,” and the agency’s activities are an abuse of the law.

“We’ve gotten used to what ‘Big Government’ looks like -- Washington’s unchecked deficit spending, the Obama administration’s policing of the press and the IRS’s targeting of conservative groups. But the problem is bigger than we thought. ‘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.”

The article comes four days after the Guardian first reported that the NSA is collecting millions of phone records. On the same day, the Washington Post uncovered the so-called PRISM program, through which the government has supposedly been mining user data directly from the country’s largest Internet companies, including Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT), Google Inc. (NASDAQ:GOOG) and Facebook Inc. (NASDAQ:FB).   

In a press conference last week, Obama defended what he called “modest encroachments on privacy” and stated that the “goal is to stop folks from doing us harm.” He added that the government’s activities are lawful and have been “authorized by Congress.”

But Sensenbrenner said the Patriot Act, which was drafted in response to the 9/11 attacks, does not grant the government the authority to collect records of every phone call made by every American.

“Congress intended to allow the intelligence communities to access targeted information for specific investigations,” he wrote. “How can every call that every American makes or receives be relevant to a specific investigation?”

On Wednesday, the same day that the Guardian story broke, Sensenbrenner wrote a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder saying he was disturbed by what appears to be an “overbroad interpretation” of the Patriot Act.

Some commentators, however, think Sensenbrenner is trying to have it both ways. Says the Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf: “[I]t is awfully suspect for Sensenbrenner claim that the Patriot Act struck an appropriate balance; that it had a worrisome potential for abuse; and that it has in fact been abused by Obama -- especially when the abuse in question is exactly the sort of thing critics warned against!”

Read Sensenbrenner’s full piece in the Guardian here.

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