By Brendan Sasso and Bob Cusack - 12/10/13 06:00 AM EST
Rep. James Sensenbrenner Jr. doesn’t mince his words.
The Wisconsin Republican says the House and Senate Intelligence committees have become “cheerleaders” for the National Security Agency.
In an interview with The Hill, Sensenbrenner — who has offered legislation to rein in the NSA — called rival legislation “a joke.”
He said Director of National Intelligence James Clapper should be prosecuted for “lying” to Congress on the nation’s surveillance programs.
Sensenbrenner, the original author of the Patriot Act, wants to limit the NSA’s surveillance powers in the wake of leaks by former CIA contractor Edward Snowden.
“There is no limit — apparently, according to the NSA — on what they can collect. And that has got to be stopped,” he said.
The 18-term lawmaker claims Congress fell down on the job of overseeing the NSA.
He said the failure in oversight occurred after Congress reauthorized the Patriot Act in 2006, just as he was stepping down as Judiciary Committee chairman.
The NSA then won secret approval from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to use a provision of the Patriot Act to collect records on all U.S. phone calls.
The court authorized the sweeping data collection even though the provision, Section 215, only allows the NSA to collect records that are “relevant” to terrorism.
“I don’t think the oversight was vigorously done by the Judiciary Committee,” Sensenbrenner said. “When I was running the Judiciary Committee, it was being vigorously done.”
Sensenbrenner, along with Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), has introduced the USA Freedom Act to end the bulk collection of phone records, limit the NSA’s power and tighten oversight.
But Rogers and Feinstein are fighting to protect the NSA’s authority, especially its sweeping phone record collection program. Feinstein has introduced a bill that would make certain reforms to promote transparency but would endorse the phone data collection.
“The Feinstein bill is a joke,” Sensenbrenner said.
He said that her view is essentially “if you like your NSA, you can keep it.”
Brian Weiss, a spokesman for Feinstein, declined to respond to Sensenbrenner’s salvo but pointed to a statement she made on her bill in October.
“The NSA call-records program is legal and subject to extensive congressional and judicial oversight, and I believe it contributes to our national security,” Feinstein said at the time.
Sensenbrenner argued that time is on the side of the NSA critics. As each new leak trickles out, exposing new details about the scope of the NSA’s spying programs, the momentum for substantial changes grows, he said.
In July, the House defeated by just seven votes an amendment to a Defense funding bill that would have ended the NSA’s phone program. Sensenbrenner’s USA Freedom Act now has 107 co-sponsors, including 15 lawmakers who voted against the Defense amendment, and two who didn’t vote.
The large number of co-sponsors from both sides of the aisle has “sent a message” to leadership to allow a vote on the measure, according to Sensenbrenner.
He warned that if Congress doesn’t pass the USA Freedom Act, the intelligence agencies are in danger of losing their powers entirely when the Patriot Act expires in 2015 and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act expires in 2017.
If the Patriot Act came up for a reauthorization vote today without changes, there would be an “overwhelming vote against it,” he said.
Sensenbrenner, along with other leading critics and defenders of the NSA, met with President Obama in the Oval Office in August. Sensenbrenner said the president personally promised him he wanted to talk further about possible changes to the NSA.
“Haven’t heard from him yet,” Sensenbrenner said. “He knows the phone number.”
Although the Snowden leaks revealed the NSA’s expansive surveillance programs and prompted the movement to limit its power, Sensenbrenner said the former NSA contractor is no hero and should face charges.
“He’s a criminal,” Sensenbrenner said. “I believe that the Russians, in showing good faith, ought to return him to face the music.”
But the Republican lawmaker acknowledged that the Snowden leaks are the only reason he knows about the NSA’s data collection program.
“What he brought to light showed that the NSA was doing some things that were far beyond what the intent of the law should have been and basically gave Leahy and I insight on how to improve the Patriot Act to try to plug this up,” he said.
Leahy and Sensenbrenner have a unique relationship, which dates back more than three decades. They don’t agree on a lot but are working closely together on the NSA and a Voting Rights Act (VRA) fix in the wake of the Supreme Court ruling earlier this year.
They both hail from dairy states, which has led to some trash talking about whose state produces better cheese.
In a statement to The Hill, Leahy said, “Congressman Sensenbrenner and I may not seem like an obvious team, but we are good friends. We have been working together for years as senior members of the House and Senate Judiciary Committees on a range of issues.”
“We know that it takes bipartisan leadership to get things done in Congress, which is why we joined together to draft … a bill that reins in the dragnet surveillance of American citizens.”
Sensenbrenner has a reputation for being a partisan, partially because of his views on immigration and climate change. But a 2009 survey of Democratic lawmakers conducted by The Hill found him to be among the most likely House Republicans to work with the other side of the aisle.
The 70-year-old lawmaker has been huddling with Democrats and the Department of Justice on his VRA fix bill, which he plans to unveil early next year. Sensenbrenner noted that he has talked with House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) about his efforts, which are sure to attract GOP critics.
Sensenbrenner has shown he relishes a legislative fight. He clashed “personally” with President George W. Bush on the need for a sunset provision for the Patriot Act, saying, “I won on that.” He has ripped the Senate-passed “amnesty” immigration reform bill.
He expressed dismay at the congressional gridlock that has strangled Washington in recent years. But the avid Green Bay Packers fan (he once sported a cheesehead at the South Pole) isn’t going anywhere any time soon.
“I’m running for reelection,” he said with a smile. “I like working with people.”