Alexander, Corker Vote to Expand Federal Surveillance Powers, TN Reps Divided

Tennessee’s U.S. House delegation was split 5-4 in favor of legislation last week — unanimously supported in the Senate — that seeks to expand the federal government’s domestic surveillance powers.

The Intelligence Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2015 includes a provision giving the director of national intelligence and agency heads two years to develop procedures governing “intelligence collection activities” that lack a warrant or other formal legal authorization. The new rules would apply to the agencies’ collection of “any nonpublic telephone or electronic communication acquired without the consent of a person who is a party to the communication, including communications in electronic storage.”

These procedures, which must be approved by the U.S. attorney general, “shall permit the acquisition, retention, and dissemination of covered communications.”

The legislation limits the retention of information to five years unless the data meets any of a number of exceptions, which include “the communication is reasonably believed to constitute evidence of a crime and is retained by a law enforcement agency” or “all parties to the communication are reasonably believed to be non-United States persons.”

The Senate unanimously approved the measure, amended to include the new section by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., Dec. 9, on a voice vote. The amended legislation was agreed to by the House the next day, on a vote of 335 to 100. Of the “no” votes, 45 were Republicans and 55 were Democrats.

Voting against the measure in the House were Republicans  Scott Desjarlais, John Duncan and Phil Roe, and Democrat Steve Cohen.

Joining Democrat Jim Cooper in voting for the measure were Republicans Diane Black, Marsha Blackburn, Stephen Fincher and Chuck Fleischmann.

None of Tennessee’s U.S. House lawmakers gave explanations for their votes, nor did Republican Sens. Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker.

U.S. Rep. Justin Amash, a Michigan Republican and chairman of the House Liberty Caucus, said the measure is dangerous and open ended.

“It grants the executive branch virtually unlimited access to the communications of every American,” Amash wrote on his official Facebook page last week. He forced a roll call vote in the House — which was avoided in the Senate — after concluding the Act contains “one of the most egregious sections of law I’ve encountered.”

“Sec. 309 provides the first statutory authority for the acquisition, retention, and dissemination of U.S. persons’ private communications obtained without legal process such as a court order or a subpoena,” Amash wrote in a letter he circulated among all members of the House. While the executive branch can currently use “a claim of executive authority” to conduct surveillance, Amash wrote that “Congress never has approved of using executive authority in that way to capture and use Americans’ private telephone records, electronic communications, or cloud data.”

In 2013 the National Security Agency came under fire when Edward Snowden, a former tech specialist contracted to work for the NSA, revealed a massive domestic surveillance program that included the collection of cell phone and internet data from individuals not under criminal investigation.

One source of criticism by constitutional and civil rights advocates was the federal government’s sharing of that data with local law enforcement agencies, sans warrant. The NSA and federal government officials have maintained these powers are necessary to keep Americans safe from future terrorist attacks.