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Ex-VP Mondale: End NSA phone records program

Ex-VP Mondale: End NSA phone records program

Former Vice President Walter Mondale on Thursday urged the Senate to kill off the National Security Agency's controversial collection of millions of people's phone records. 

“This is the most optimistic opportunity I’ve seen in a long time [to] step back from some of this excess that we’ve been dealing with,” he said during a panel discussion hosted by the Brennan Center for Justice.

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The White House and lawmakers in both parties are attempting to end the NSA’s bulk collection of phone "metadata," he noted.

And while defenders of the program say it is crucial for defending national security, neither a presidential advisory panel nor a small federal civil liberties watchdog were able to find a single instance in which that program was crucial to stopping a terrorist attack, he added.

“It’s an enormous undertaking,” said Mondale, who served as vice president under President Jimmy Carter and also spent time on the congressional Church Committee overseeing intelligence operations in the mid-1970s.

“It’s a big, unlimited strategy to interfere with the privacy of Americans and the Fourth Amendment.”

Mondale’s remarks add to the pressure on lawmakers to act ahead of a deadline at the end of the month. The provision of the Patriot Act that the NSA has relied on to run its phone records program — known as Section 215 — is set to expire at midnight on Sunday, along with two other parts of the law.

Ahead of that deadline, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has called a rare Sunday afternoon session for the chamber to either continue the law unchanged, reform it to kill the NSA phone records program or else allow the three provisions to expire. Lawmakers are split on the issue, with many Republicans insisting on a “clean” reauthorization of the law without changes, while Democrats and a handful of Republicans say Congress should reform the law while renewing the provisions.

In addition to ending the NSA program, the reform bill — known as the USA Freedom Act — would also add a new expert panel to the secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which oversees government spy agencies but only hears arguments from the government side, unlike other courts.

That’s a prescription that Mondale seemed to agree with on Thursday.

“There’s no way that a responsible party who objects to what’s going on with solid reasons for doing so will be heard,” he said. “I think this is a really dangerous problem, and I’d like to see some reforms to make the court more accountable.”