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Explore our coverage of government and politics.

Leahy Bill Limits Government Surveillance

Leahy is the chairman of the Senate Judiciary committee and he’s teaming up with a Republican member of the House Judiciary committee, Wisconsin Rep. James Sensenbrenner, to sponsor a billthat would limit the electronic surveillance of American citizens.

I think we have gone too far the other way. The fact that we have the technical means to collect everything about everybody does not mean there is any reason to do so -Senator Patrick Leahy

Leahy says the Administration's alleged decision to monitor the phone calls and emails of millions of people in this country undermines the privacy rights of these individuals. Under his plan, federal officials would have to prove that there’s probable cause to conduct the surveillance. Leahy says the bill is needed because current system is out of control.

“I think we’ve gone too far the other way,” said Leahy. “The fact that we have the technical means to collect everything about everybody doesn’t mean there’s any reason to do so.”

Some Democratic members of the Senate Intelligence committee argue that current practices have thwarted dozens of terrorist attacks over the years. Leahy says that number was greatly reduced as soon as he started asking for the details of these activities.

“It went from 54 down to a dozen and that went down to 3 finally ended up with 1,” said Leahy. “It may have had helped in one but it was primarily thwarted because of work by the F.B.I.”

Leahy says a key part of his bill creates a new public advocate who will have the ability to challenge the government’s request for surveillance in front of a special federal intelligence court.

“There should be somebody in there who says ‘wait a minute this goes beyond the law,” said Leahy. “And I’ve had a number of judges who are in there say they would like to have somebody they would like to have the arguments heard on both sides before they make their ruling.”

It was disclosed this week that the Obama Administration has been conducting huge surveillance programs of citizens in France, Germany and Spain. And these surveillance programs included the monitoring of phone calls of the leaders of these countries.  Leahy says this activity is a huge mistake.

“There are certain steps beyond what you don’t go and when we’ve done that we lose our credibility,” said Leahy. “But we’re also going to lose cooperation. In doing things like this doesn’t make us safer it actually ends up hurting us a great deal.”

Leahy expects a vigorous debate over his bill. The Chair of the Senate Intelligence committee, California Senator Diane Feinstein says she will do everything she can to keep current surveillance programs in place.

Bob Kinzel has been covering the Vermont Statehouse since 1981 — longer than any continuously serving member of the Legislature. With his wealth of institutional knowledge, he answers your questions on our series, "Ask Bob."
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