WASHINGTON – Bucks County Congressman Mike Fitzpatrick will introduce a bill to tighten the rules around surveillance of Americans' phone records and data – and cut National Security Agency funding if it oversteps its authority -- after saying the issue has been a prime concern for his constituents during Congress’ recess.
“Federal law enforcement deserves all the tools it needs to keep Americans safe at home, keep Americans safe abroad, but we cannot sacrifice personal liberty for the illusion of security,” Fitzpatrick said in a conference call with reporters. He later added, “I need to have an answer for my neighbors who have asked me during this August work period what I am doing to stand up against massive government overreach.”
He said he would introduce a bill to require that NSA programs targeting Americans' phone records and data must include “a reasonable suspicion that a citizen is engaged in wrongdoing,” rather than “a dragnet,” and that the person be suspected of being involved with international or foreign terrorism.
Violations would result in defunding the NSA program, authorized in the Patriot Act, that allows the federal government to access tangible business records, such as phone records, according to Fitzpatrick’s office. The trigger for cutting NSA funds would be a court determination that the NSA had violated the Patriot Act provision.
Other lawmakers have promised similar proposals.
Fitzpatrick pointed to a recent Washington Post report citing 2,776 incidents of “unauthorized collection, storage, access to or distribution of legally protected communications” in one 12-month period.
“It is impossible to reach any other conclusion except that it’s a deliberate cover up of wrong doing,” he said.
The Post report was based on an NSA audit provided by Edward Snowden, who helped set off the renewed scrutiny by leaking information on the NSA spy programs. According to the Post, the audit included a level of detail “not routinely” shared with Congress.
Many of the errors, though, were chalked up to technical mistakes – such as typographical errors or instances in which a person with a mobile phone entered the U.S. and was still tracked. Others, the Post reported, included unauthorized access to communications and significant violations of the law.
The programs have split lawmakers, and not along traditional partisan lines. Members of both parties have been critical, but some Democrats and Republicans have also defended the NSA programs, citing them as important to ensuring security.
U.S. Rep. Peter King (R., N.Y.), chairman of the subcommittee that oversees counterterrorism and intelligence, said on Fox News Sunday that mistakes have been “inadvertent” and represent a small share of the overall work.
"If you have a 99.99 percent batting average, that's better than most media people do, most politicians do," King said, while praising the NSA's work. "This whole tone of snooping and spying we use, I think it's horrible. I think it's really a smear and a slander of good, patriotic Americans."
Fitzpatrick indicated that he is most concerned with “reckless and intentional” violations.
Earlier in the day, Sen. Pat Toomey (R., Pa.) released a statement also raising concerns about the Post report.
“While it does not appear that these violations by the NSA were intentional, Congress must redouble its oversight efforts to better protect the privacy of those we represent while also maintaining intelligence operations that are critical to national security,” Toomey said.
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