Leahy, Sanders, Welch respond to NSA data collecting

Rep. Peter Welch, Sen. Bernie Sanders and Sen. Patrick Leahy got together Monday to talk about the farm bill passed through the house in June. VTD Photo/Taylor Dobbs

Rep. Peter Welch, Sen. Bernie Sanders and Sen. Patrick Leahy speaking about the farm bill in June 2012. Photo by Taylor Dobbs/VTDigger

All three members of Vermont’s congressional delegation were quick to respond to a growing furor over leaks that show the National Security Agency has been amassing large amounts of data on American citizens.

• Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., resurrected one of his previous attempts at introducing more transparency to NSA programs.

• Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., called the program “Orwellian” and demanded that the government have probable cause before collecting such data.

• Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., called for congressional oversight of the PRISM, the NSA program that allows the data collection.

The programs that are now being criticized drew their authority from two laws — the Patriot Act and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) Amendments Act — that Congress passed, raising questions about its own culpability. The Vermont delegation is taking different approaches to addressing the problem.

Leahy joined Sens. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., and Mike Lee, R-Utah, and several other lawmakers Tuesday to introduce a bill that would require the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, a secret court that authorizes surveillance requests, to declassify major legal opinions. Those disclosures would include the decisions that authorized the collection of metadata on telephone records and online information from tech companies.

Leahy backed a similar measure last year when the FISA Amendments Act of 2008 was reauthorized, but the amendment died in the Senate. The bill allows the U.S. Attorney General to withhold opinions that would endanger national security if made public.

Leahy issued the following statement after the bill’s introduction: “For years, I have pressed for information about the business records program authorized by the Patriot Act to be declassified. I am proud to join in this bipartisan legislative effort to increase openness and transparency so that we can shed further light on the business records program authorized by this law.”

The Senate president pro-tem is also seeking to use the leaks to drum up support for another of his digital privacy initiatives — an update to the decades-old Electronic Communications Privacy Act that would require the government to get a warrant before accessing emails or documents stored in the cloud.

In a statement released last week, Leahy called more generally for “re-examining legal authorities in the Patriot Act that could authorize broad government surveillance.”

Congressional oversight

Sanders, who lambasted last week’s revelations as “Orwellian,” is calling on Congress to amend the Patriot Act to make the government prove probable cause before collecting data.

He is quoted in a Politico story expressing surprise at how far the Obama administration ran with the Patriot Act provisions.

“I never ever expected that under any definition of that legislation that it would mean the phone calls of millions and millions of Americans — virtually none of whom the government has any reason to believe is involved in terrorism — would be checked by the United States government.”

Welch said one of the most damning revelations accompanying the leaks was the degree to which the public has been kept in the dark.

“Congress doesn’t get briefed and when it does get briefed it has to maintain secrecy. If Congress has to take a pledge of secrecy, then we are not able to have discussions with the people we represent about this government program.”

Welch, who said he didn’t know about the PRISM program prior to leaks, called attempts to ascertain how much Congress knew about the programs prior to leaks “kind of a red herring,” because the briefings are often given on the condition of secrecy.

Welch said he thinks a large portion of the responsibility for following up on the leaks falls in the lap of the judicial branch.

“The courts are ultimately going to have to play a significant role. The question of whether you’ve crossed the line into violating constitutional rights — this is a judicial decision. What Congress should do is more carefully draft the privacy protections to get the balance right.”

But he does think Congress has an “investigatory responsibility” to hold oversight hearings on the PRISM program to get a better grasp on its scope and whether or not there are firm enough safeguards in place. As part of its investigation, Congress should also look closely at the access that low-level staff with security clearances have to records, Welch said.

While Welch made it clear he thinks the public has a right to know about the programs, he stopped short of commending Edward Snowden, the source of the leaks — “you can’t condone people violating the law.”

Voting records

A review of Sanders’ and Welch’s voting records reveals an unbroken string of “nays” on both pieces of legislation and their subsequent reauthorizations. Welch said he opposed the Patriot Act from the beginning because he feared “it gave too free a hand to the surveillance apparatus.”

Leahy voted for the original Patriot Act in 2001, and he has since voted in favor of several temporary extensions of it. According to his spokesperson, David Carle, those votes were “a matter of biding time” so the senator could propose substantial changes to the law.

Leahy has indeed left a paper trail of attempts — some successful, others not — at attaching Fourth Amendment protections to the Patriot Act and the FISA Amendments Act. When those efforts were rebuked, Leahy withdrew his support for the legislation. In 2006, he voted against the USA Patriot Improvement and Reauthorization Act of 2005 and in 2011, he voted against the extension of the Patriot Act until June 2015. Leahy also voted against the FISA Amendments Act of 2008 and it’s reauthorization in 2012.

Legal basis

According to Washington Post reports, the NSA is mining data on emails and social media communications from major tech companies, among them Apple, Google and Facebook, through a program called PRISM. Obama administration officials have cited the FISA Amendment Acts as the legal grounds for the program.

And, according to The Guardian, it’s also collecting the call records of U.S. citizens from major telecommunication companies — Verizon, At&T, and Sprint Nextel — as authorized by Section 215 of the Patriot Act.

The Guardian has also reported that through a third program called “Boundless Informant,” the NSA has amassed 97 billion pieces of information from computer networks, three billion of which originated in the U.S., all over the course of a single month.

Alicia Freese


  1. Randy Koch :

    Welch says: “You can’t condone people violating the law” meaning, they should go after Snowden for bravely revealing that Obama has shredded the Constitution and violated the privacy of hundreds of millions of people. He says the courts should stop Obama but how can they when Obama just classifies all the evidence ultra-hyper-oh-so secret so that nobody can see it.

    What Welch means is that you CAN condone Obama and his slow-motion coup d’état.

  2. Bruce Post :

    Looking at the photo, I wonder: do these guys coordinate their wardrobes?

  3. George Cross :

    Will Leahy, Sanders and Welch apply the same conditions of transparency and truthfulness to the decision to base the F-35 at BTV? Funny how they so easily jump on one topic and completely ignore another.

  4. rosemarie jackowski :

    Why did it take a 29 year-old high school drop out to do what our 3 men in the Congress could not do? Maybe it is time to ‘fire Congress’ and replace them with people who will safeguard the Constitutionally protected interests of citizens.

  5. Every single one of those men participated in this and knew about it. Everyone in congress was briefed on this, Leahy has exceptional clearances and knows far more. None of them have passed on what they knew to the American people. Now they’re shocked and offended, yeah?

    Lies like this are the very fabric of politics itself, and perhaps this kind of cynicism from our leaders shouldn’t bother me. It does, though.

    What’s sad is that there are actually liberals who will take all this tired ad copy at face value. Not funny at all, just sad.

  6. rosemarie jackowski :

    This might prove to be one of the most important news stories of the decade. There is more yet to come.

    Please see:

  7. Bonnie MacBrien :

    Much bigger story – are you kidding?!

  8. Lynn Nila :

    Outrage is sooo, “old World” (not that i believe this) The New World order is homoginization through government education at every level (this is good;this is bad)while maintaining federally funded programs that appeal to youthful greed… even if your chronilogical age is not that youthful. Perhaps that’s a giant leap from one subject to the other, but have you really examined what media puts out there for public consumption these days? It’s not terribly honed to promote thoughtful examination.

  9. rosemarie jackowski :

    From Ellsberg to Snowden – and the best is yet to come…

    Today is the anniversary of the publication of the Pentagon Papers in 1971 (I think). We could celebrate by signing petitions to free Jeremy Hammond.

    About Snowden…Why can’t someone file a Federal False Claims Act Suit on his behalf. Imagine if he received 30% of all the money the government spent on the illegal activities he exposed… He is one of the people who would use the money wisely and compassionately.

    Also – imagine if our schools taught about Snowden and used him as a role model, a defender of Democracy and Freedom of the Press. I know that won’t happen, but………

  10. Rob Simoneau :

    Where is the Justice Department? Does anything work anymore in our government? I see Google and Facebook are taking the high ground and are now asking questions. Amazing, it took a federal employee not a corporate employee to blow the whistle. I cannot believe some people are asking for Snowden prosecution; for what, protecting our Constitutional rights! Profiles in Courage – Snowden.

    Where are the Republicans? They should be very upset since they always claim they want a smaller government. Besides this massive invasion of our privacy; what is the cost of all this insanity?

    I think we should all demand all the information the federal government has collected on each of us under the Freedom of Information Act! In addition, we all need to boycott one of these corporations and shut them down for their part in this effort to undermine our privacy.

    Oh …. whoever is monitoring this site for the NSA or CIA or Google my name is Rob Simoneau so please put this blog posting in the correct folder under top secret.

  11. Fred Woogmaster :

    Over a certain period of time in office, for the majority of those in Congress (the period of time is not uniform) the primary reference group invisibly shifts from constituents to colleagues and Washington insiders. Term limit advocates frequently refer to this in their arguments.

    The process is somewhat insidious – and like long married couples – they start to resemble each other and their wardrobes appear to be coordinated by a “hip” funeral director – and they take positions that had previously been unimaginable.

    Mr. Snowden said it best: “I am not a hero, I am not a traitor. I am an American.” When the suppression of truth is exposed and abuse of the Constitution in the name of protection is revealed, those who do it are heroes in my mind. Ellsberg, certainly! Snowden? I believe so.

    The views of our three congresspeople are not alike. Or are they?

  12. Margaret Harrington :

    The CIA surveillance of my personal communications or anyone else’s private information, without a legal warrant showing due cause, is a betrayal of our rights as American citizens.
    It is an abuse of power by all 3 branches of our government. It is an assault on our Constitution.
    It is a totalitarian tactic to break down the protections of our 1st and 4th amendments in particular.
    As an American citizen I believe that we are entitled to a government of, for, and by the people.
    The CIA surveillance of private exchanges, this dragnet across America and outside America, reveals to us a government out of control of the people, an inhuman structure which is not grounded in any base of democracy.

  13. Al Walskey :

    No wonder Congress as a whole has such a low approval rating. If we’re to have a government of, by and for “the people” “the people” must be part of the decision making process. The trust of “the people” has been subverted so many times by our own government that they can no longer be trusted to carry out their sworn duty to uphold the Constitution. The biggest threat to Democracy, in my opinion, appears to be the enemy within our own government. Any threat to expose the abuses of power is met with a swift smack down by the perpetrators. The unlawful conduct of elected officials is seldom prosecuted. We now know that President Johnson used the bogus Gulf of Tonkin to get us into the shooting war in Vietnam where more that 58 Thousand American fighting men died. Ellsberg was demonized for telling the American people the truth by releasing the Pentagon Papers. Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden appear to be patriotic men of conscience who because of their belief in our Democracy have the backbone to tell us the truth at great peril to themselves while many of our elected leaders who are on the taxpayers payroll go along to get along lacking the backbone and courage to “make right the master of might.” If a (w)man really is entitled to the presumption of innocence till guilt is proven then a transparent, fair and open airing of of all sides of the issue will only make us stronger. In doing so, however, those officials who failed to protect “the people” from the abuses of power must be held to account for their lack of action. Perhaps we should have learned the lessons of Vietnam, Watergate, and Contragate by having NSA do all their data mining on our elected officials at every level in order to protect Democracy from the abuses of those who have taken a sworn oath to protect it. Trust but verify…

  14. Margaret Harrington :

    I want to correct my post.

    It should read The NSA surveillance, not the CIA surveillance.
    The NSA surveillance of my personal communications or anyone else’s private information, without a legal warrant showing due cause, is a betrayal of our rights as American citizens.



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