U.S. Rep. Jim Himes, Connecticut’s only delegate on the House Intelligence Committee, says it is time to narrow the scope of the Patriot Act.
Himes made the statement Thursday, about six months into his tenure on the committee, and following a whistleblower’s revelation that the National Security Agency has been collecting massive amounts of Americans’ digital communications data.
Pointing to a provision in the Patriot Act that says the government can capture “any tangible thing,” Himes said the scope of the authority the Patriot Act grants to the government should be more specific.
“We have very broad interpretations of those broadly written statutes,” Himes said, adding that making the language more specific about exactly what the government can and can’t do will help better balance national security with civil liberties.
Whistleblower Edward Snowden, a former NSA contractor, revealed the documents showing that the government has been capturing and storing the telephone records of every call conducted over Verizon’s network. He also showed the government’s efforts to capture data packets traveling over the Internet.
The Patriot Act, which grants broad authority to the government, has essentially made these practices legal. Himes says there may be better ways to retain this information without the government holding the data.
Himes says that defining standards for data retention on American Internet service providers and telephone companies — and requiring the government to obtain a warrant to retrieve that data — is an approach with which he would be more comfortable.
The process isn’t entirely without checks and balances. Himes pointed out that the judicial branch scrutinizes the process by considering warrant requests through the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). The FISA courts are secret, and reportedly refuse very few warrant requests. But Himes said he values the role of the FISA court judges in the process.
“I would like to see a world in which the intelligence community, and FBI, and domestic law enforcement do not have vast libraries of information on Americans,” Himes said. “If it exists there will come a moment where it will be abused.”
He also says that Congress needs to ask tougher and more specific questions of the agencies tasked with managing these surveillance operations. Himes points to a June 18 committee hearing during which he asked General Keith Alexander, the NSA Director, about his assertion that the surveillance programs “contributed to” the disruption of terrorist plots.
“If you let the language ‘contributed to’ slide on by, it may turn out you had 10 other mechanisms to disrupt those things,” Himes said. “And we need to be able to weigh what is the benefit of a program, in my way of thinking, which is at best on the margin as to what’s acceptable vis-à-vis privacy.”
And in some cases a lack of technical knowledge among members of Congress puts them at a disadvantage over those members of the intelligence community who are familiar with ever-evolving telecommunications technology.
“None of us, or very few of us anyway, have the technical expertise – unless we really apply ourselves to be as thoughtful about this stuff as of course the techie folks in the intelligence community can be. That’s a lopsided context for us,” Himes said.