WASHINGTON – U.S. Senator Chris Coons (D-Del.) on Wednesday spoke on the Senate floor about the need to protect Americans’ privacy rights and reform the PATRIOT Act, the 2001 law that has allowed the federal government to collect mass amounts of Americans’ communications data.
Senator Coons spoke on behalf of a reform bill that passed by an overwhelming 338-88 vote in the House of Representatives earlier this week – the USA FREEDOM Act. Senator Coons is a cosponsor of an identical bill introduced in the Senate, which would only allow the government to seek Americans’ communications records if they are relevant to an ongoing investigation.
Excerpts from Senator Coons’ speech
“For nearly a decade, our government has operated a program that collects massive amounts of information from innocent Americans without any specific suspicion they have done anything wrong...
“That program has been carried out under Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act based on flimsy or mistaken interpretations of the original law, all in the name of our national security. Yet the bulk collection program has had disputed and not arguably clear benefit to our national security. There is not one clear publicly confirmed instance of a plot being foiled because of this Section 215 program.”
Senator Coons’ full remarks are below:
“Mr. President, I am wondering whether the Senator from Kentucky would be good enough to confirm for me where I think the issue is that is before the Senate today. So if I might, I will speak for a few minutes about what I think is the core issue before us on the floor and then ask the Senator whether he would confirm that this is his understanding as well.
“At the outset, I will say it is relatively rare for my colleague from Kentucky and I to come to the floor in agreement on an issue, but it has happened before on exactly this issue. I think it is important that it be clear to folks that there are concerns on both sides of the aisle on the critical underlying issues about how we balance privacy and liberty, security and our civil liberties.
“For nearly a decade, our government has operated a program that collects massive amounts of information from innocent Americans without any specific suspicion they have done anything wrong. Let me put that another way. For years, any American's communication data could have been tracked and collected by the government, whether or not they were suspected of a crime.
“That program has been carried out under Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act based on flimsy or mistaken interpretations of the original law, all in the name of our national security. Yet the bulk collection program has had disputed and not arguably clear benefit to our national security. There is not one clear publicly confirmed instance of a plot being foiled because of this Section 215 program.
“I have long been concerned about the scope and the reach of our intelligence community's bulk collection program. That is why in 2011 I voted, along with my colleague from Kentucky, against the straight reauthorization of the PATRIOT Act. I believed then, as I believe now, it would be irresponsible for Congress to continue reauthorizing the law without taking steps to address concerns about unlawful surveillance it has allowed, particularly given the fact that earlier this month a U.S. federal circuit court specifically deemed this program illegal.
“Fortunately, we have an alternative, which I believe the Senator from Kentucky has been expounding on behalf of, the USA FREEDOM Act, a bipartisan bill passed by the House just last week by an overwhelming margin – I think it was 338 to 88. It would end bulk collection by only allowing the federal government to seek call records retained by the telecommunications industry once it has established a record is relevant to an ongoing investigation.
“Records would no longer be stored by the government but would remain in the hands of telecommunications companies, which under FCC rules, in order to ensure that there is customer access to records in the case of a dispute, they are retained for 18 months. This bill strikes an important balance by protecting Americans’ privacy and ensuring our government can still keep our nation safe.
“In fact, there are some who might argue that the USA FREEDOM Act would allow a stronger and more robust and more effective series of actions to keep our nation safe. I urge my colleagues to support it. I know these are difficult decisions for us to make. I know we all have concerns about our nation's security, but we have to all have concerns about our nation's freedom. We fought for it from the very beginning of our country.
“I want to just thank and salute members here, colleagues, and in particular my colleague from Kentucky for being insistent that we have clarity about time. We were told four years ago, when the reauthorization fight was happening, that time had run out and that we needed to reauthorize it, without considering needed reforms that were discussed and debated in the Judiciary Committee.
“Two years ago, some of the core elements of this were exposed to the world. A lot of my constituents raised legitimate and serious concerns about it. Whether we are being asked to extend it for two weeks or two days or two hours, I think time has run out for us to even discuss reauthorizing a program that has explicitly been held illegal. We instead need to come together and take up and pass the USA FREEDOM Act.”