WASHINGTON, D.C. - U.S. Senator Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.), a member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, spoke on the Senate floor today calling on Congress to end the National Security Agency (NSA) bulk collection program. He stated his opposition to reauthorizing Section 215 of the USA Patriot Act without making the necessary reforms to protect Americans' privacy and civil liberties. Section 215 is the provision used by the NSA to collect the phone records of millions of law-abiding Americans. Senator Heinrich is a cosponsor of the USA Freedom Act of 2015, a bipartisan compromise that ends this bulk collection program, and restores Americans' privacy rights while ensuring the intelligence community's capabilities.
Below are Senator Heinrich's remarks as prepared for delivery:
There is no question that our nation's intelligence professionals are dedicated, patriotic men and women who make real sacrifices to help keep our country safe and free.
They should be able to do their jobs secure in the knowledge that their agencies have the confidence of the American people.
And Congress needs to preserve the ability of these agencies to collect information that is necessary to guard against real threats to our national security.
The framers of the Constitution declared that government officials had no power to seize the records of individual Americans without evidence of wrongdoing, and they embedded this principle in the Fourth Amendment.
In my view, the bulk collection of Americans' private telephone records by the NSA clearly violates the spirit--if not the letter--of the framers' intentions.
Just six months after my first Senate Intelligence briefing, former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden leaked documents exposing the NSA's massive collection of Americans' cellphone and Internet data.
It was made clear to the public that the government had convinced the FISA Court to accept a sweeping re-interpretation of Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act, igniting a necessary and long overdue public conversation about the tradeoffs made by our government between protecting our nation and respecting our constitutional liberties.
Well-intentioned leaders had, during the previous decade, come down decidedly on the side of national security, sacrificing privacy protections in the process.
What became obvious was that, because of our continued lack of knowledge of al-Qa'ida and other terrorist organizations, some within our government believed that we still needed to collect every scrap of information available in order to ensure that--should we ever need it--we could query this information and track down U.S-based threats.
In doing so, the government ended up collecting billions of call data records linked to millions of innocent Americans.
Wisconsin Republican Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner, one of the authors of the original Patriot Act, said in 2013 that: "The Patriot Act never would have passed...had there been any inclination at all it would have authorized bulk collections."
As this debate increasingly moved to the public sphere, I joined my colleagues on the Intelligence Committee, Senator Wyden and former Senator Mark Udall, in pressing the NSA and the Director of National Intelligence for clear examples in which the bulk information collected under Section 215 was uniquely responsible for the capture of a terrorist, or the thwarting of a terrorist plot.
They couldn't provide any. Not one single example.
Nor could they make a case for why the government had to hold the data itself, and why it needed to be held for such a long period of time.
Thankfully, a review panel set up by President Obama agreed with us and recommended that the government end its bulk collection of telephone metadata. I'll admit, however, that I'm disappointed that the President hasn't used his authority to unilaterally roll back some of the unnecessary blanket metadata collection.
Some have claimed that this inaction is evidence that the President secretly supports maintaining the current program as-is.
This is nonsense.
The President has asked Congress to give him additional authorities so that he can carry out the program in an effective manner, and the USA Freedom Act seeks to do just that.
The Republican-led House of Representatives last week passed the USA Freedom Act by a vote of 338 - 88.
Further, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that the NSA is violating the law by collecting millions of Americans' phone records is even more proof that we've gone too far, and need to recalibrate and refocus our efforts.
Given the overwhelming evidence that the current bulk collection program is not only unnecessary but also illegal, we've reached a critical turning point. It's time to finally end the bulk collection of these phone records, and instead, focus more narrowly on the records of actual terrorists.
Americans value their independence--I know this is especially true in my home state of New Mexico--and cherish their right to privacy guaranteed by the Constitution.
But some of my colleagues still think it's OK for the government to collect and hold millions of private records of innocent citizens and search those records at will.
The Majority Leader is asking us to act quickly to reauthorize. That would be a grave mistake. And I join my colleagues in blocking any extension of the law that does not include major reforms including an end to bulk collection.
I believe we can and we must balance the government's need to keep our nation safe with its duty to protect our constitutionally guaranteed liberties.