Why you should care
The Snowden-inspired political battle over U.S. intelligence practices will heat up in 2014, and these four members of Congress are going to be right in the thick of it.
It’s not every day you hear old-school Vermont liberal Sen. Patrick Leahy and Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, the conservative curmudgeon from Wisconsin, mentioned in the same sentence. Add to the conversation maverick lefty Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon and tea party darling Rep. Justin Amash of Michigan, and you have the definition of “strange bedfellows.”
But when it comes to the heated policy debate over the U.S. National Security Agency’s sweeping surveillance operations, exposed by intelligence contractor Edward Snowden’s tsunami-sized intelligence leak, they’re all in the same corner. And they’re working to rally support for legislation to fundamentally alter how the government spies.
If they’re able to end any of those practices, it will be thanks to the leadership of key players like Sensenbrenner, Wyden, Leahy and Amash.
Snowden’s disclosure of the NSA’s mass collection of phone and internet records from around the globe, among other programs, has prompted a furious backlash from civil liberties groups, foreign leaders and plenty of politicians in Washington. If they’re able to end any of those practices, it will be thanks to the leadership of key players like Sensenbrenner, Wyden, Leahy and Amash.
The four men run the gamut in terms of age, ideology, experience and demeanor. Elected to the Senate in 1974, Leahy is the chamber’s longest serving member. He is 73 and Sensenbrenner, who was first elected in ’78, is 70. Both are seasoned operatives and, for the most part, staunch partisans.
At the other end of the spectrum is 33-year-old Amash, one of the brash Young Turks swept into Congress by the tea party in 2010. It was Amash who, against the wishes of his own party leaders, introduced an amendment to a defense policy bill in the House this summer that would have ended almost all of the NSA’s phone data collection. It was defeated by just 12 votes.
Wyden finds himself in between those poles – a classic baby boomer at 64 with an easygoing mien that belies a razor sharp policy mind.
Since winning a special election to the Senate in 1996, Wyden has made a career out of defending civil liberties and questioning authority, even in his own party. A member of the Senate Intelligence Committee that was briefed on the details of many of the NSA programs now coming to light, he tried to raise alarm bells about the practices, but his hands were largely tied by laws preventing the disclosure of classified information.
In the campaign to reign in the NSA, Wyden ”will be crucial in keeping the liberals together, putting pressure on the administration and being able to speak as someone who is intimately briefed on all of these programs in a way that 95 percent of the members are not,” says Michelle Richardson, the American Civil Liberties Union’s legislative counsel focusing on national security issues.
Wyden ”will be crucial in keeping the liberals together…Sensenbrenner is a less likely NSA critic.
Sensenbrenner is a less likely NSA critic. The traditional Midwestern conservative was actually one of the lead backers of the original Patriot Act – the post-Sept. 11 law aimed at strengthening U.S. defenses against terrorism, but included some potentially invasive measures that worried civil libertarians. The NSA bases its phone records collection authority on Section 215 of that law, which authorizes the collection of certain types of business records for terrorist investigations.
But Sensenbrenner says that was never the intention of the original 2002 law. ”I did not know the administration was using the Patriot Act for bulk collection, and neither did a majority of my colleagues,” he wrote in an August op-ed in the Los Angeles Times, calling the program “a gross invasion of privacy and a violation of Section 215.”
It makes for a powerful critique. Sensenbrenner and Leahy – the chairmen of the House and Senate Judiciary Committees, respectively – are sponsoring legislation to strictly curb that type of phone record data collection, as well as limit the intelligence community’s ability to gather bulk internet communications data and add new transparency requirements. Wyden and Amash have thrown their weight behind the bill, which got a big jolt of momentum Monday with a federal court ruling that the NSA’s phone data collection is likely unconstitutional. Major tech companies are also lining up behind the effort, issuing an open letter in support of major changes to the NSA programs last week.
It’s still going to be an uphill climb, however. The Senate and House Intelligence Committees have their own rival legislation that is much more in line with administration preferences – increasing transparency and adding some limits to the data collection without ending the programs – which intelligence officials say are vital for U.S. security. Both parties’ official leaders lean towards the administration’s position.
But NSA critics are hopeful that the unyielding stream of spying revelations and growing political outrage about them will propel the effort forward in 2014, ideally securing a vote before the summer when mid-term electioneering will slow everything in Washington to a crawl.
And as Kurt Opsahl, a staff attorney with the pro-privacy advocacy group Electronic Frontier Foundation puts it, “There’s some of the cache to having one of the principle authors of the Patriot Act talking about the reform of the Patriot Act.” The fact that Leahy, Sensenbrenner, Wyden and Amash all have different constituencies is a strength, adds the ACLU’s Richardson. ”I think the diversity of all the major players here is going to help us in the end to be able to cobble together enough votes to get something done.”