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Bob Goodlatte: Protecting Our Civil Liberties

bob-goodlatte-afp2Knowing of our shared commitment to the protection of the civil liberties of Americans, I write to give you an update on my oversight of the National Security Agency (NSA) intelligence-gathering programs that recently came to light. We must jealously guard U.S. citizens’ civil liberties and thoroughly review our nation’s intelligence-gathering programs to ensure these liberties are protected.

Classified information on top-secret NSA data collection programs was recently released. The PRISM program is described as allowing the NSA to obtain data from electronic service providers on non-U.S. person customers who reside outside the United States – including email, chat, photos, videos, stored data, and file transfers. The other program pertains to the ongoing production of call detail records or “telephony metadata.” Telephone metadata is a term used to refer to the bulk collection of certain telephone call business records. These records include the telephone numbers dialed and the time and duration of the call, but do not include the names or addresses of the callers or the content of the calls.

The business records provision in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) – often referred to as Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act – allows the government to access tangible items, including business records, in foreign intelligence, international terrorism and clandestine intelligence investigations. A FISA business records order must first be approved by a federal judge and cannot be used to search a person’s home, to acquire the content of emails or listen to telephone calls. While lawful, I would argue that the breadth of the NSA’s metadata program, namely the ongoing collection of all customers’ telephone metadata, exceeds Congress’ intent in enacting Section 215.

There are legitimate concerns and questions that have been raised about the NSA surveillance programs, including whether there are sufficient protections for Americans’ civil liberties and privacy, whether there is adequate oversight and transparency of the programs and whether the costs of the programs are justified. I share these concerns and am committed to thoroughly reviewing these programs, getting answers to these questions and finding ways to bolster the protection of our civil liberties.

As Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, which has jurisdiction over these matters, I convened an oversight hearing on July 17, 2013, to examine the statutory authorities that govern certain programs operated under FISA. The Committee plans to conduct additional oversight, including a classified hearing, so that we can thoroughly review the data collection programs used by the NSA and ensure that the laws we have enacted are executed in a manner that protects Americans’ civil liberties. The Committee will follow the facts where they lead us.

On July 24, 2013, the House of Representatives voted to reject an amendment to H.R. 2397, the Department of Defense Appropriation Act for FY 2014, offered by Representative Justin Amash of Michigan. I voted against this amendment because, while well-intentioned, it would have had the effect of preventing the FBI from obtaining an individual order for any business record (not just telephone data) about a person associated with someone who is the subject of an authorized investigation. Adopting the Amash Amendment without careful deliberation would not have been prudent due to the unintended consequences of the amendment for law enforcement activities beyond the metadata program.

Furthermore, I want to share that I supported an amendment offered by Representative Mike Pompeo of Kansas that will ensure no taxpayer funds may be used by the NSA to acquire and store the content of an American’s communications, including phone calls and e-mails. This amendment clarifies that the government is not permitted to listen to or store Americans’ telephone conversations through this provision. This amendment was successfully approved by the House and the underlying bill passed the chamber by a vote of 315-109.

It is essential that we ensure America’s intelligence gathering system has the trust of the American people, whom it serves to defend. I look forward to continuing to work together to protect our civil liberties.

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