Why Rep. John Conyers wants to defund NSA’s phone snooping

Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) along with Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.) have proposed an amendment to the defense spending bill that would restrict the National Security Agency’s (NSA) ability to collect bulk phone records and metadata under the Patriot Act by defunding the program. The amendment is scheduled for a vote later Wednesday, and has been denounced by the administration. Conyers spoke to me Wednesday afternoon about the measure. This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity. 


Rep. John Conyers (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

Andrea Peterson: How would your amendment change the surveillance status quo?

Rep. John Conyers: As you know, I am one that has been critical of the Patriot Act, and I have been trying to make it more friendly toward the concerns of privacy that all Americans are entitled to. We consider it a constitutional right to have such privacy. This Section 215 of the Patriot Act has this phrase about "records can be collected or obtained if they are relevant to an ongoing national security investigation" and in a way that is what our concern is about -- whether the records are in fact relevant to ongoing investigations. I believe that if it meets that test, then we don't have any objections.

Our concern, however, is that when the government collects phone records, for example, on everybody in the United States. In other words, if there is a case, or an investigation, or an incident, and there are people thought by the FBI or CIA to be relevant to the investigation [that's what the law was meant for.]

AP: As you mentioned, you consistently voted against the Patriot Act. Did you envision the kind of surveillance and data collection that we now know it was being used to authorize at the time of those votes?

JC: It was a concern, but I never imagined anyone would tell me a few years after the Patriot Act that the government would routinely collect who called a number from everybody in the country and that would be policy. I would have said "no, I don't think we'd go that far." I was worried about bad acts, but I didn't think we would do that. I didn't know that there was any reason, and I still don't.

AP: Can you describe how you first reacted when you heard about the mass phone records collection program?

JC: It was shocking and disappointing that we went this far. I'm not happy about it. What we're trying to do now is see if we can [fix it] without upsetting our need for protection and the kind of authority that we do need. We can do it without hurting national security or efforts to protect against terrorism or other acts that would be detrimental to the United States.

AP: Were you surprised that the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) renewed the Verizon order authorizing the collection of call records after its contents were revealed in the [former NSA contractor Edward] Snowden leaks?

JC: Yes, I was. That's why we're putting this amendment together today for debate and a vote. We want the government to only be allowed to collect relevant information. That's the only test we're asking to be used -- which was what we agreed to originally.

AP: Are you optimistic about your chances?

JC: I think it's an uphill struggle. We haven't done a vote count, but there are a lot of members that haven't decided how they are going to vote. We have been checking around, but we're not confident about this. We'll see how the vote turns out. We could win it, or perhaps not. I wish I could know in advance if I could win or lose in a vote -- that would make things pretty convenient to me.

AP: It's interesting to see you and Rep. Amash come together along with your bipartisan coalition because it seems like there has been so much partisan gridlock in recent Congressional terms. Do you see privacy as an issue that can bring divergent groups on the hill together?

JC: I think the whole Congress reacted much the way I did. First of all, we didn't know it was going on, and we didn't think it was fair. We thought it ought to be changed, and that's what we hope to do by making "relevant" become more than the way it is now where it really means "anything." We're hoping to get back on track at least to this extent. The bulk collection of telephone records of people whose numbers are not connected to an investigation or implicated in terrorist activity would end.

AP: Have you been surprised by the administration's reaction to your proposal?

JC: Well, yeah. I didn't know they would oppose us merely restating the law to what we originally intended. I was a little bit at a loss for that. But you know, the administration and lots of people have so many issues they are balancing out and trading off that I can't say this has never happened before or is unusual. But if I had been giving them advice, I would have suggested that all we're doing is restating the law and the intention that we had behind it when we passed it in the first place.

AP: Do you support measures like the one proposed by Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) to require the Attorney General to declassify significant FISC opinions so the public know about how the Patriot Act and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act are being interpreted by the courts.

JC: I can live with that. I hope they take up our bill in the Senate.

FAQ: What you need to know about NSA surveillance and Edward Snowden

Andrea Peterson covers technology policy for The Washington Post, with an emphasis on cybersecurity, consumer privacy, transparency, surveillance and open government.
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