Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), the congressman who helped author The Patriot Act in 2001, has been largely critical of the Obama administration for the surveillance operations conducted under its watch by the National Security Agency.
But on one key component of the law, Sensenbrenner's criticism may be off base, a former official in President George W. Bush's administration tells The Huffington Post.
Sensenbrenner was quick out of the gate to express his concerns with recent revelations that the NSA has been gathering data on millions of domestic phone calls, arguing that the agency was over-interpreting the Patriot Act's Section 215. He upped his criticism during an appearance on "The Laura Ingraham Show" Wednesday, saying that the provision had been "deliberately drafted to prevent [the] data mining" that was now taking place.
"This is the mother of all mines of data," Sensenbrenner added, for good measure.
It was a sharp jab from a congressman who helped craft the legislation that laid the foundation for the post 9/11 national security state. But it may be unfair.
Paul Rosenzweig, who served as the deputy assistant secretary for policy in the Department of Homeland Security during the Bush administration, said that the text of the Patriot Act is unclear when it comes to data mining.
"The text is ambiguous -- obviously sufficiently ambiguous that the [Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act] court has found room within it to authorize the NSA collection program," he said. There is no mention of preventing data mining in the text of the statute.
"If [Sensenbrenner] was trying to do it deliberately to prevent what has happened, then the drafting [of the Patriot Act] was not as good as he wanted it to be," Rosenzweig added. "Put it another way, this isn't like the executive branch said, 'I'm going to ignore the statute, and I'm going to go data mine and do the NSA thing.'"
Rosenzweig did concede that when the law was written in 2001, data mining along the lines of the NSA's current practices likely wasn't on anyone's radar.
"If you asked me my honest opinion, it would be that nobody was considering data mining at the time of the passage of the Patriot Act," he said.
Sensenbrenner said he reassured colleagues when the Patriot Act was drafted that the law would not overreach and infringe on civil liberties. But the legislation has long been the subject of criticism from the American Civil Liberties Union and civil libertarians, who argue that the surveillance it authorizes is unconstitutional and could hinder freedom of speech.
The law has been heralded by some government officials as an important tool in the war on terror.
On Ingraham's show Wednesday, Sensenbrenner expressed his disapproval of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act courts for granting the administration the legal authority to cast such wide data dragnets, and for doing do in secret.
"The problem with the FISA court is that it acts in secret. Nobody whose civil rights are violated is able to appeal a decision of the FISA court because they didn't know, even know, that's the case," Sensenbrenner said. "That is what is really, truly scary about these judges who should have known better signing off on an unlimited dragnet."