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A Bipartisan Response to the NSA's Surveillance

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By Rep. Justin Amash and Rep. John Conyers

Somewhere in a government data center sits information on every call you've made lately. You may be completely innocent. And yet, day-in and day-out, the government continues to collect information on your calls.

Vacuuming up details from the lives of ordinary Americans is not what Congress signed on to when it enacted the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) in the 1970s, or when it amended the law through the USA PATRIOT Act a decade ago. Many rank-and-file congressmen were shocked to learn that the law has been stretched to authorize such blanket surveillance.

Americans deserve to be safe and free. Their elected representatives -- regardless of political party or ideology -- should work together to protect their privacy. That's why next week we will introduce a bipartisan, comprehensive response to NSA's overbroad surveillance activities, called the LIBERT-E Act.

The Patriot Act's Section 215, which was the basis of the leaked FISA court order authorizing bulk collection of telephone records, ostensibly limits the scope of the government's data collection. Section 215 currently requires the government to provide facts to show that the information sought relates to a foreign intelligence or terrorism investigation.

It's believable that some of Verizon's millions of customers come within the web of such an investigation. It's not possible, however, that the records of every Verizon customer -- and, reportedly, every customer of every major phone company in the country -- are "relevant" to an ongoing foreign intelligence or terrorism investigation.

The government has no business stockpiling so much of our data, and our bill seeks to solve two of the problems that became so apparent after last week's leak of the FISA court order and disclosure of the "PRISM" program.

First, rather than keeping a "relevance" standard that provides no meaningful limit on the mass collection of data, we propose that the government present at least "specific and articulable" facts that show that the desired information is "relevant and material" to an authorized investigation, and that the data pertain only to individuals under investigation. Federal courts created the "specific and articulable" standard decades ago to review certain police searches. It's the same standard federal investigators must meet to access other electronic communications. By creating a tighter link between the data and the person under investigation, we can help prevent the indiscriminate surveillance of innocent Americans.

Second, we require the federal government to release significant opinions of the FISA court, which to date has operated in complete secrecy from the American public. Congress and the American people must know how the law is being interpreted to have an informed debate about surveillance and personal liberty.

Americans and their representatives must debate the weighty issues surrounding liberty and security. These issues are just too important to be handled behind closed doors. That is why our legislation also gives every Member of Congress the same access to FISA court opinions that some congressional committees have. And we require that summaries of the opinions be available to the public (with classified portions withheld, as needed). To jumpstart this critical policy debate, we task relevant inspectors general with assessing the privacy impact that NSA's surveillance has had on Americans, and we demand disclosure of information on the agency's domestic surveillance.

With the public now more aware of its government's surveillance, we hope to renew Congress's focus on protecting civil liberties. The NSA's programs are reported to collect information on practically all Americans. Taking this opportunity to fix the system should be a project we all can support.

Rep. Justin Amash (R-MI) is the Chairman of the House Liberty Caucus. Rep. John Conyers (D-MI) is the Ranking Member on the House Judiciary Committee. Both voted against reauthorization of the Patriot Act and the FISA Amendments Act.