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Rep. Sensenbrenner: Mass data collection makes it harder to prevent attacks

October 29, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
A bipartisan group of lawmakers are calling for an end to most of the NSA's phone and email surveillance. Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., says he believes the president "ought to draw a line" that NSA shouldn't cross. He joins Judy Woodruff to discuss why he believes there should be reform of the scope of U.S. spying programs.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: One of those lawmakers calling for limits to U.S. spying is Wisconsin Republican Jim Sensenbrenner. He’s chairman of the House Crime and Terrorism Subcommittee.

Chairman Sensenbrenner, thank you very much for being with us.

Can you explain to us, what’s the main change you want to make in the ability of these surveillance agencies to do their work, and why have you changed your mind about how much latitude they should have?

REP. JAMES SENSENBRENNER, R-Wis.: Well, I think that they have gone much further than the Patriot Act ever intended them to do.

The Patriot Act was passed to say the intelligence agencies should target a non-U.S. person who was in an authorized terrorist investigation and then collect intelligence on who he was in contact with and what he might be up to.

What the NSA has done over the last six to eight years is, they have grabbed everybody’s phone records and they have tried to match that to see who might be involved in a terrorist strike. The NSA has not ever come up with how many terrorist conspiracies that they have actually been able to solve in doing this. And, you know, I can say that two teenagers talking about who they’re taking to the prom is not going to lead to somebody who wants to blow up Chicago.

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It goes much too far.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But…

JAMES SENSENBRENNER: It brings in people who are innocent and not involved in any type of criminal or terrorist activity.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But it…

JAMES SENSENBRENNER: And I think the time has come to stop it, because it’s an invasion of privacy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But I’m sure, as you know, what they say is, they are collecting what they call metadata, the fact that phone calls took place, the phone numbers, the duration of the call, the accumulation of e-mails. But they say they’re not listening and they’re not reading unless they have a reason to do so.

JAMES SENSENBRENNER: Well, so what?

The fact that the calls took place and they get trillions of these calls makes the haystack so big that they can’t find the needle in it. And even though Tsarnaev brothers were in the U.S. legally, one was a citizen, when the Russians told us they were bad guys, they weren’t able to track down who they were zeroing in on before the Boston Marathon bombing.

Look, there has to be a balance between privacy and security. The NSA and their supporters in the Congress have said, let’s forget about privacy, let’s forget about civil liberties, let’s forget about the First and Forth Amendments. I can’t do that, because I think that what’s made America a different country is our respect for these types of issues.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well…

JAMES SENSENBRENNER: And, certainly, what the NSA has been doing is a lack of oversight, and it’s destroyed trust with our allies, particularly those in Europe.

JUDY WOODRUFF: I — Congressman Sensenbrenner, I listened today to the testimony of James Clapper, the head of the NSA, also the — or, rather, the head of national intelligence — also Keith Alexander, who heads the NSA. They said they are concerned about civil liberties, but they’re seeking a balance.

And what we heard Keith Alexander say is that they have been able — he said, we have not had another attack in the United States since 9/11, he said, in large part due to the work that they have been able to do. And he expressed a fear, if you take away these tools, they can’t guarantee that they will be able to continue to do that.

JAMES SENSENBRENNER: Well, nobody can guarantee that the bad guys won’t be able to have an attack on the United States.

But, look, what they ought to do is find out who’s involved in a terrorist operation and then use a target by going after that person and that person’s phone records and the people that he’s conspiring with, not to grab all of the phone records of people who are innocent. You know, we’re talking about trillions of records.

And I don’t know how you can put the pieces of a trillion-piece puzzle together in time to stop a terrorist strike. They sure didn’t do it with the Boston Marathon bombing, and they haven’t been specific on any terrorist strike that they have stopped, except one, by using this metadata.

JUDY WOODRUFF: One of the other points they made today is that they have — we heard Mr. Clapper say that they have been — that there has been surveillance spying on foreign leaders, he said, for decades. He said this goes back to the very beginning of surveillance in the United States, that the United States is doing it to other countries and other countries are doing it to the United States today.

JAMES SENSENBRENNER: That may very well be true.

But it seems to me that when we are dealing with friends and allies, like German Chancellor Merkel, the president ought to draw a line that the NSA shouldn’t go beyond. And I think the president has been negligent in not drawing a line or admitting that he didn’t even know about it until last summer.

Well, all this controversy is a result of a lack of oversight. It’s a lack of oversight in the White House. It’s a lack of oversight from the Congress. And the FISA court that has issued orders that supposedly approved these methods say that in many cases the Justice Department which petitions that court on behalf of the NSA was inaccurate and maybe even lying to them.

(CROSSTALK)

JAMES SENSENBRENNER: The thing is, is, the only way oversight can be done is if people tell the truth, tell the truth to the court, tell the truth to the Congress, and tell the truth to the president.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Just very briefly, one other point they made is that there is more oversight taking place today for these agencies and every one of these agencies and in Congress, they said, than in any other nation in the world.

JAMES SENSENBRENNER: Well, it sure isn’t working.

And what you heard from some of the people on the Intelligence Committee is that they’re cheerleaders for the NSA, rather than doing oversight. They ought to be doing oversight, which means asking the tough questions, getting to the bottom of the issues. And I think that the most upsetting comment was made by Senator Feinstein yesterday, when she said she didn’t even know about the tapping of cell phones of people like Chancellor Merkel.

She is the chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, and if anybody ought to be briefed on that and ask the tough questions, it ought to be Senator Feinstein. And she didn’t know anything about it at all.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, we hear you, Congressman James Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin. Thank you very much.

And, on Thursday, we will discuss these questions and the scope of U.S. spying with the director of national intelligence, James Clapper.