One of the more serious congressional threats to the National Security Agency's controversial surveillance programs could come from one of the unlikeliest of sources: a primary sponsor of the Patriot Act.
Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., criticized the Obama administration this week for its using parts of the Patriot Act to justify the NSA's bulk collection of Americans' email and phone data and said he plans to introduce legislation to limit such programs.
"The NSA has gone far beyond the intent of the Patriot Act, particularly in the accumulation and storage of metadata," Sensenbrenner said. "Had Congress known that the Patriot Act had been used to collect metadata, the bill would have never been passed."
Sensenbrenner's bill, dubbed the Freedom Act, still has "a couple of bugs" to hammer out, he said. But Sensenbrenner's vision for the bill is clear: He wants to redefine Section 215 of the Patriot Act, which he believes has been misinterpreted by the Obama administration, to create a clear, uniform standard for lawful surveillance by the intelligence community that would effectively eliminate the NSA's metadata collection program.
The bill will also seek to make the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court more transparent by requiring it disclose certain decisions and limit Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, a 2008 provision that allows government to collect Internet communications from people believed to be living outside the United States.
"There is a legitimate reason for the intelligence community to collect" some personal records of certain individuals, Sensenbrenner said. "The question is whether we should start with that identified person and move out from there or grab everything and move inward."
Passed in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the Patriot Act has long been vilified by its detractors as an unconstitutional breach of civil liberties. But Sensenbrenner scoffs at the notion he's being ideologically inconsistent by trying to place boundaries on intelligence collection. Instead, he faults a lack of oversight.
"The bottom line on all of this is when there was vigorous oversight being done there were not the type of abuses that have come to light in the last several months," Sensenbrenner said.
Sensenbrenner "may be the most legitimate voice on the issues" because of his work on the Patriot Act, said Mark Jaycox, a policy analyst with the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
Sensenbrenner sent a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder last month asking him whether the Justice Department believes Section 215 authorizes carte blanche collection of Americans' phone records and other personal data. He followed up with an additional letter this week and said he has yet to receive a response.
"We're going to have a vigorous debate, whether they like it or not," Sensenbrenner said.
Jaycox added that recent revelations over the past month have bolstered the position of lawmakers who want to address oversight of domestic surveillance.
"The question is not whether Congress is going to do something," he said, "the question is how much is Congress going to do."