Will Congress Reign In the NSA?

Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, a very far right congressman who wrote the Patriot Act, now says that he wants to pass legislation to restrain the business records provision that is being used to justify the seizure of metadata from all the major cell phone carriers (nope, not just Verizon; AT&T and Sprint are turning it over too).

Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI), who helped draft the PATRIOT Act, is exploring options to narrow a provision of the law that allows the National Security Agency (NSA) to obtain telephonic metadata on nearly all Americans. The comments are the first indication that Congress may act to restrict the government’s ongoing data collection since the Guardian published a secret court order compelling Verizon to turn over its records on a “on an ongoing daily basis” and the Wall Street Journal reported that AT&T and Sprint are also sending their records to the government.

“I have a big problem because the business records part of the Patriot Act, which is what was used to justify this, was designed for specific investigations,” Sensenbrenner told Fox News on Friday. “We’re seeing big government in action, just like George Orwell predicted but maybe a few years later,” he added.

Section 215 of the Patriot Act allows the government to order businesses to turn over “the production of any tangible things” if it can prove that “there are reasonable grounds to believe” that the tangible things sought are “relevant to an authorized investigation . . . to obtain foreign intelligence information. . . or to protect against international terrorism or clandestine intelligence activities.” The government has been obtaining metadata records from telephone companies for years and has used three-month secret warrants from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISA) court since 2006.

Sensenbrenner indicated that he will draft legislation to “change that part of the business records part of the Patriot Act before it expires in 2015″ to more narrowly tailor it and will question FBI Director Robert Muller about the program when he appears before Congress next week. Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) also plans to offer a bill designed to close the “business records” provision.

So what are the chances of such legislation actually passing? Not a chance in hell. Sensenbrenner won’t be able to get more than 15 or 20 Republican votes for such a bill, and that assumes that Boehner would even allow a vote on it, which is unlikely. And in the Senate, the Democrats in charge (Harry Reid, Dianne Feinstein) are zealously defending the program along with leading Republicans like John McCain and Lindsay Graham. In the Senate, I doubt there are 10 votes to dismantle the program (Rand Paul, Ron Wyden, Mark Udall, Bernie Sanders, maybe Patrick Leahy).

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