Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) said on Sunday that the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks may have been preventable if the bulk phone collection program that exists today under the Patriot Act was in effect back then.
Speaking on ABC’s “This Week,” Burr, who chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee, rejected the idea of returning to a narrower surveillance program that would only collect data on people suspected of being terrorists. “That turns us back to pre-9/11,” said Burr. “It was very time consuming, it was cumbersome.”
Explaining the decision to pass the Patriot Act, Burr said, “What we looked at was the impact of 9/11 and the fact that we might have been able to stop 9/11, had we had bulk collection.”
Three sections of the Patriot Act, the law passed immediately after the attacks, are set to expire June 1 (but May 22 is the last day Congress has to act before going into recess). One key provision that is set to expire is Section 215, which has served as the legal justification for the government’s phone records collection program.
"I do think it should continue for the simple reason that it's very effective at keeping America safe," Burr said Sunday. "And in addition to that, we've had absolutely no incident of anybody's privacy being intruded on."
The already contentious debate about whether to reauthorize the program has been further complicated by Thursday’s federal appeals court ruling, which found that Congress did not authorize the phone collections program in its current form when it passed the Patriot Act.
Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), chairman of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, was quick to note that the court’s ruling did not definitively rule out the legality of such a program.
"It's important to note that the Second Circuit Court of Appeals did not rule it unconstitutional," he said Sunday on CNN’s “State of the Union." "They just said it was not being applied properly based on the law that was written. So we need to take a very careful look at the way we write these, quite honestly, very complex laws."
Johnson criticized Edward Snowden's revelations about the program as "demagoguery" that has "done great harm to our ability to gather information." He added, "Our best line of defense, trying to keep this nation safe and secure, is an effective intelligence-gathering capability, with robust congressional oversight."
Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) promised on Sunday to filibuster a reauthorization of the Patriot Act unless it includes significant reforms.
The White House has said that the program will end without congressional reauthorization. "If Section 215 sunsets, we will not continue the bulk telephony metadata program,” National Security Council spokesman Ned Price told Reuters in March.