SPY GAMES: "The name is Sensenbrenner -- F. James Sensenbrenner." | WisCommunity

SPY GAMES: "The name is Sensenbrenner -- F. James Sensenbrenner."

Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis) is not a particularly benign lawmaker. The affluent lawmaker, a member of the House of Representatives since the Carter administration, votes the Republican mantra of tax cuts and dis-entitlement for the working class and the disadvantaged. But he's also regarded within the Beltway as a leader of some kind when it comes to national security issues. I guess you could call him a leader if you like the USA Patriot Act and the federal "Real ID" law, both of which Sensenbrenner was instrumental in passing.

Now that its clear the Patriot Act, in particular, opened a gaping door into the privacy of virtually every American citizen, the man from Menomonee Falls is coming on strong in favor of curtailing US spy agencies. That's only in the wake of revelations from former private contractor Edward Snowden that the National Security Agency is snooping on virtually everybody -- even the leaders of 35 nations that are US allies. 

We've discussed this issue before and Sensenbrenner's role in moving the Patriot Act to passage here: http://www.uppitywis.org/blogarticle/nsa-secret-program-sensenbrenners-n...  Sensenbrenner's view -- exactly the opposite of former Sen. Russ Feingold (R-Wis), the only senator of either party who voted against the Patriot Act -- has been that the Patriot Act includes reasonable protections against unwarranted snooping by the government. But that was then and this is now. Now, he says:

Look, there has to be a balance between privacy and security. The NSA and their supporters in the Congress have said, let's forget about privacy, let's forget about civil liberties, let's forget about the First and Forth Amendments. I can't do that, because I think that what's made America a different country is our respect for these types of issues.

Then again, as we noted in our June 7, 2013 post here:

George W. Bush used that [Patriot Act] power, like Obama but without criticism on Capitol Hill, despite continuing vocal concerns from progressive forces, not to mention Justice Department audits that revealed problems years ago. You wouldn't know it to read the mainstream media so far, but as The Atlantic magazine and other media have pointed out how, several times before (twice during the Bush administration in 2006 and '07, and once during Obama's first term, in 2010), troubling indications surfaced that the Patriot Act's relaxed surveillance standards had resulted in the FBI running amok. Sensenbrenner insisted before the first of those revelations that the act had sufficient safeguards in it. So this is our third go-around, and Sensenbrenner is still expressing shock at the law he proclaimed had those safeguards.

Which is akin to saying that Sensenbrenner was among the intelligence community's "supporters in Congress" whom he now criticizes. Otherwise, why put help introduce the Patriot Act in the first place? 

Nor has Sensenbrenner ever acknowledged -- except in side-long fashion -- the well-documented truth that the act emboldened the Bush administration to greatly expand the nation's vast intelligence-gathering network after 9/11, and to skirt existing rules about getting advance approval of wiretaps from the secret "FISA" courts. It's OK if you're a Republican, apparently. Yes, to hear Sensenbrenner talk about it, you might be inclined to think all this mass snooping on everyone's Internet activity and phone calls only began after Barack Obama moved into the White House.

Sensenbrenner did it again Tuesday in a long interview on the PBS Newshour. The interview focused on the revelations concerning taps on foreign leaders but got into the broader issue. [See link to the transcript and video stream below]

Granted, Sensenbrenner at one point acknowledged to anchor Judy Woodruff that the widened snooping has been going on since Bush's tenure:

What the NSA has done over the last six to eight years is, they have grabbed everybody's phone records and they have tried to match that to see who might be involved in a terrorist strike. The NSA has not ever come up with how many terrorist conspiracies that they have actually been able to solve in doing this. And, you know, I can say that two teenagers talking about who they're taking to the prom is not going to lead to somebody who wants to blow up Chicago.

Well, if we are to believe this terribly widespread snooping began six years ago, then the implication is that it's all Obama's fault. But as we noted earlier, we know better, even though Sensenbrenner pretends otherwise.

During the interview, Sensenbrenner went on to criticize Congress (of which he is a member, of course) for failing to conduct proper oversight of the NSA. But his criticisms are targeted by name at Democrats, never Republicans. For instance, read this exchange between Sensenbrenner and Woodruff:

JUDY WOODRUFF: One of the other points they made today is that they have -- we heard Mr. [James] Clapper [director of national intelligence] say that they have been -- that there has been surveillance spying on foreign leaders, he said, for decades. He said this goes back to the very beginning of surveillance in the United States, that the United States is doing it to other countries and other countries are doing it to the United States today.

JAMES SENSENBRENNER: That may very well be true.

But it seems to me that when we are dealing with friends and allies, like German Chancellor Merkel, the president ought to draw a line that the NSA shouldn't go beyond. And I think the president has been negligent in not drawing a line or admitting that he didn't even know about it until last summer.

Catch that pivot? Sensenbrenner intimates that spying on foreign leaders only began under Obama. Or maybe he's extending the GOP meme that it was Obama who began spying on leaders of ally nations, like Germany's Angela Merkel. Or maybe we're supposed to focus on Obama failing to stop what Bush started -- or at least what Bush himself failed to stop. And if the intelligence agencies have been lying to lawmakers and the White House, well, that, too, is in great measure the fault of the president --the current one, anyway. Sensenbrenner continues:

Well, all this controversy is a result of a lack of oversight. It's a lack of oversight in the White House. It's a lack of oversight from the Congress. And the FISA court that has issued orders that supposedly approved these methods say that in many cases the Justice Department which petitions that court on behalf of the NSA was inaccurate and maybe even lying to them.


JAMES SENSENBRENNER: The thing is, is, the only way oversight can be done is if people tell the truth, tell the truth to the court, tell the truth to the Congress, and tell the truth to the president.

Well, sir, the last time the American public learned that their leaders and the intelligence community were lying to them was in the report from a bipartisan Senate committee set up in 1975 and chaired by Sen. Frank Church (D-ID) in the wake of Watergate. The committee documented not only the White House's improper political use of FBI resources, but also illegal spying by the CIA, the NSA, the US Army and other government units. That led to reforms and more congressional oversight, including the eventual creaton of the US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.

But the Church report was decried by conservatives who said intelligence agencies were being unduly constrained. One of the Church Committee outcomes was an executive order by President Gerald Ford banning secret assassination plots against foreign leaders considered enemies of the US. To Republican cheers, President Ronald Reagan removed that restriction with his own executive order a few years later. Then, in 2001, the Patriot Act erased still more protections. 

Now, speaking in statesmanlike but fundamentally political terms, Sensenbrenner strongly implies or says outright that two leading Democrats -- President Obama and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, chair of the select intelligence committee -- have been asleep at the wheel if not reckless. But regarding Reagan or George W. Bush or any other Republican officeholder, himself included, Sensenbrenner doesn't even offer up cricket chirps. Indeed, Congress (including Sensenbrenner) readily reauthorized the Patriot Act in early 2011, adding provisions that appear to have enhanced trampling of the First and Fourth Amendments to the Constitution. From Wikipedia:

One of the most controversial aspects of the USA PATRIOT Act is in title V, and relates to  (NSLs). An NSL is a form of  used by the FBI, and reportedly by other U.S. government agencies including the CIA and the  (DoD). It is a demand letter issued to a particular entity or organization to turn over various records and data pertaining to individuals. They require no probable cause or judicial oversight and also contain a , preventing the recipient of the letter from disclosing that the letter was ever issued. Title V allowed the use of NSLs to be made by a Special Agent in charge of a Bureau field office, where previously only the Director or the Deputy Assistant Director of the FBI were able to certify such requests. This provision of the Act was challenged by the ACLU on behalf of an unknown party against the U.S. government on the grounds that NSLs violate the First and Fourth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution because there is no way to legally oppose an NSL subpoena in court, and that it was unconstitutional not to allow a client to inform their Attorney as to the order because of the gag provision of the letters. The court's judgement found in favour of the ACLU's case, and they declared the law unconstitutional. Later, the USA PATRIOT Act was reauthorized and amendments were made to specify a process of judicial review of NSLs and to allow the recipient of an NSL to disclose receipt of the letter to an attorney or others necessary to comply with or challenge the order. However, in 2007 the U.S. District Court struck down even the reauthorized NSLs because the gag power was unconstitutional as courts could still not engage in meaningful judicial review of these gags.

What was Sensenbrenner's take back then? Mostly, more cricket chirping, except that he blew up when those supposedly sleepy, irresponsible Democrats actually sought to have an open debate on the Patriot Act's shortcomings. Again, Wikipedia:

On June 17, 2005, Sensenbrenner, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, abruptly ended a meeting where Republicans and Democrats were supposed to be debating the renewal of the USA PATRIOT Act and walked out in response to Democratic members raising issues regarding  violations at the  and the ongoing . He ordered the court reporter to halt transcriptions of the proceedings,  cameras covering the meeting be shut off, and that discussion on the issue be halted. Sensenbrenner defended his actions by claiming that the Democrats and witnesses had repeatedly violated House rules in discussing issues he believed to be unrelated to the subject of the meeting. His abrupt walkout was contrary to House , which is to adjourn either on motion or without objection. Political journalist  described the incident in a profile of the 109th Congress published around October 2006: "Last year, Sensenbrenner became apoplectic when Democrats who wanted to hold a hearing on the Patriot Act invoked a little-known rule that required him to let them have one. "Naturally, he scheduled it for something like 9 a.m. on a Friday when Congress wasn't in session, hoping that no one would show," recalls a Democratic staffer who attended the hearing. "But we got a pretty good turnout anyway." Sensenbrenner kept trying to gavel the hearing to a close, but Democrats again pointed to the rules, which said they had a certain amount of time to examine their witnesses. When they refused to stop the proceedings, the chairman did something unprecedented: He simply picked up his gavel and walked out. "He was like a kid at the playground," the staffer says. And just in case anyone missed the point, Sensenbrenner shut off the lights and cut the microphones on his way out of the room. Commenting on Sensenbrenner's actions on , comedian  said, "Oh my God, he literally took his gavel and went home; we are officially being governed by children."

In short, there is grist here for everyone's mill, yet Sensenbrenner -- while seeming to have got religion on the evils contained in the Patriot Act and further misappropriation of power by the NSA and other intelligence agencies -- is again playing partisan games. We need bipartisanship on this issue, but if Sensenbrenner wants to point fingers, one place to start might be the congressional washroom mirror.


October 30, 2013 - 11:29am