Here’s why one of the most conservative members of the House wants to rein in the NSA

Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH) is co-sponsoring FISA Court reform with Rep. Chris Van Hollen. (U.S. House of Representatives) Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) is co-sponsoring FISA Court reform with Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.). (U.S. House of Representatives)

Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) is joining with Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) to sponsor legislation that would introduce an adversarial "Constitutional Advocate" into the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance (FISA) Court -- the secret court that rules on the legality of National Security Agency (NSA) spying programs. Jordan is one of the most conservative members of the house. He's a former chair of the conservative Republican Study Committee, and he earned a perfect rating from the American Conservative Union in 2012.

I spoke to him Tuesday about his legislation, the partisan dimensions of the NSA debate, and his own personal reaction to the Snowden leaks. This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Andrea Peterson: How did you learn about the legislation, and why are you supporting it?

Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio): Well, Chris [Van Hollen] just approached me on the floor and said would you be interested in this, and I said sure. We took a look at what he was trying to do here and said this makes a lot of sense. It's consistent with our constitutional form of government, this is about checks and balances, this is about equal treatment under the law, this is about respect for the Fourth Amendment, so we said 'yeah, we like this idea, and we're happy to work along in a bipartisan way with our friends on the other side.'

AP: I know it's been a sort of a contentious time on the Hill lately, especially with the budget debate. Can you tell me a little more about if you think surveillance and the NSA has brought different parties together on the hill?

JJ: Oh yeah, you saw that on the Amash vote -- what was it that now six, eight weeks ago, maybe nine weeks ago now? It was an interesting coalition, I think there were 100 hundred and...

AP: I think it was 111 Democrats and 94 Republicans

JJ: Yes, it was roughly a hundred each -- slightly more Ds than Rs. But it was a cross section of the Congress who supported the amendment. And it was in spite of the fact that the President was against it, the Speaker was against it, the Majority leader was against it, the Minority Leader was against it, the Minority Whip was against it, most of the Chairmen of committees came out with a letter opposed to it. In spite of all that, it was a really close vote. It was an interesting coalition. So yeah, it's one of those issues where party affiliation doesn't necessarily define who is going to be for something and who's going to be against.

AP: My understanding is that this legislation only proposes reforms specifically to the FISA Courts.

JJ: Yes.

AP: There are some other bills being floated around on the Senate side, there's bipartisan legislation that Sens. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), and some others are proposing that is a bit more broad in shape. Is that something you'd be interested in seeing in the House?

JJ: We're looking at this issue, and we're looking at a broader cross-section of privacy concerns. I co-sponsored the Amash-Conyers legislation -- again, an interesting mix -- Justin Amash (R-Mich.), John Conyers (D-Mich.) are from the same state but are pretty far apart on most issues. There's work that's going to be done on the Judiciary Committee. In fact, I asked Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) and former Chairman Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) about this concept for a citizen's advocate, and they said they're likely to incorporate it into their legislation -- I don't necessarily mean this bill, but this concept. So there's good support for this idea that Chris Van Hollen and I have put together as well as a broader look at the whole of privacy and surveillance issues.

AP: A few weeks ago after a speech in a local church former NSA chief Michael Hayden commented on adversarial proposals for the FISA Court, and he said that he thought those changes would be largely cosmetic and more make people feel better, than change the actual policy outcomes of the court. Do you think that kind of criticism or commentary on this type of legislation is valid?  

JJ: He can have his opinion, but the way we structured the legislation was not purely symbolic. It's to give the citizens an advocate and remain consistent with the American system which says it's an adversarial system. The government has their side of the story to tell and make their case, but the citizens should have theirs also. We understand the sensitive nature of the FISA Court and all, so you have to structure it somewhat different. But you want to keep that basic principle in place that there needs to be someone arguing for the civil liberties side of thing and the citizen's side of thing in these proceedings.

And that's exactly what our legislation sets up. We think we do it in a good way where there are the checks and balances that have always been consistent and part of the American system. The person is nominated by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, they have to come from a list of nominations form the privacy and civil liberties oversight board so the executive branch can't get rid of this person --- they don't answer solely to the executive branch. There's judicial branch involve, executive branch involved, and legislative branch involved. We think it's the right way to do it and the kind of reform that's needed.

AP: Were you at all surprised by the revelations that have come to light about NSA spying and surveillance through the leaks from former NSA contractor Edward Snowden?

JJ: Everyone in the country was surprised. Everyone was surprised that this amount of data was being collected, and the things we've heard over the last several months that have sort of leaked out and dripped out every few weeks about what was going on there. Everyone was surprised, and that's why you're seeing members of congress say "look, we need to make some changes here -- changes that are consistent with our Constitution, our Bill of Rights, and specifically the Fourth Amendment."

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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