Leahy: NSA surveillance ‘not making us safer’

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) warned about the government’s collection of massive quantities about data about American citizens on Wednesday.

During a panel discussion titled “The Big Brother Problem" at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Leahy said government officials “don’t make ourselves safer by wiretapping or investigating every single person.”

“In the United States, which should be one of the freest countries to express yourself, we are collecting far too much information,” the Senate Judiciary Committee chairman said. “It is not making us safer.”

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Leahy also compared the dangers posed by the National Security Agency’s (NSA) collection of information to abuses conducted by former longtime FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover or the Nixon administration during the Watergate scandal.

“Just because we can do it in the United States doesn’t mean we should,” he told the panel. “I don’t think it makes us safer any more than the horrible excesses of Watergate and J. Edgar Hoover and all made us safer. It made us less safe.”

Leahy has tried to reform the NSA through the USA Freedom Act, which has attracted more than a dozen co-sponsors in the Senate. A House version of the bill, from Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), has gained the support from more than 120 lawmakers.

The bill would reform the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which approves spy agencies’ surveillance efforts, end the bulk collection of data about phone calls and limit government officials' use of National Security Letters, which force people to hand over information.

President Obama announced a number of reforms to government surveillance programs at the NSA and elsewhere last week, but did not embrace the full set of changes in the USA Freedom Act.

Congress will need to reauthorize the controversial bulk phone data collection by next summer. Critics of the program have argued that the date serves as a deadline for some time of reform.

“It is forcing everybody to look at it,” Leahy said.