“We are not in a scrimmage; we are in a war … this new war we’ve never fought before.” U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La.
WASHINGTON — The mostly Republican Louisiana congressional delegation offered mixed reactions to the recent admissions of the federal government’s collection of phone and Internet data that ranged from general levels of comfort to accusations of “huge overreach.”
Democrats such as Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., and Rep. Cedric Richmond, D-New Orleans, acknowledged mixed feelings while saying they generally trust the actions of the Democratic federal administration thus far to prevent terrorism without invading privacy rights much.
But the Republicans had more varied reactions, with Rep. Charles Boustany, R-Lafayette, contending the federal security programs are working well with proper oversight but others, such as Rep. Rodney Alexander, R-Quitman, complaining that the government has overstepped its boundaries.
“I think there’s been a huge overreach,” Alexander said. “They’ve been using a little more latitude than they should.”
Recent news reports and federal government admissions have shown the National Security Agency has been collecting vast swaths of the citizenry’s phone records each month since at least 2005 and that it also is using a program, code-named PRISM, to mine certain data online from websites such as Google, Facebook and more.
President Barack Obama and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper have argued the information is only being used to hone in on potential terrorist threats and is not being abused to snoop on everyday Americans.
They argue that everything being done is legal under the Patriot Act of 2001 and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and that the congressional intelligence committees are fully in the information loop.
Although the Louisiana delegation has participated in recent briefings, there are not any members of the delegation on the House or Senate intelligence committees that receive confidential information.
Alexander said “Congress is just as much to blame” for giving the government the legal leeway to collect sweeping information.
He said he does not so much “regret” his own reauthorization votes so much as he would like to see the laws revisited soon.
Boustany, though, argued that the federal programs are working properly to prevent terrorist threats as long as “very vigorous congressional oversight” remains in place.
“Based on everything I’ve heard, the programs have been working as designed,” Boustany said. “But we need to continue to have proper oversight.”
Others, such as Reps. Steve Scalise, R-Jefferson, and Bill Cassidy, R-Baton Rouge, were more critical of the government, though.
Scalise said he believes the “intent” of the Patriot Act is being violated by the collection of phone records, regardless of whether the law is being officially broken.
“I have serious concerns that the federal government can be maintaining a database of every American’s phone records,” Scalise said.
While the government is getting proper approval from secret courts on many requests for Internet data and such, Scalise said the phone records are not being collected in that appropriate way. “That system of checks and balances is what makes our government great,” he said.
Cassidy complained that the revelations are coming on top of the developments about the Internal Revenue Service targeting tea party groups and that the NSA could be guilty of similar abuse.
“Clearly, we should all be concerned about the potential for misuse and abuse,” Cassidy said.
Obama and Clapper claim the programs have helped stop multiple planned terrorist attacks, Cassidy said, “But we don’t have all the details yet. We don’t know that yet and, frankly, there’s a lot of spin coming from the White House.”
As for the Democrats, Richmond said he believes the federal programs are working to prevent terrorism and that the “freedoms we enjoy come at an expense.”
But Richmond acknowledges the concern and admits he might feel differently under a GOP president.
“It depends if you trust the administration,” Richmond said, also noting, “I’m not a big fan of the Patriot Act … I just thought it was very far reaching.”
Landrieu said she also sees both sides of the debate.
“I’ve been following this story like everyone else and have mixed feelings because my constituents are happy that the federal government has been aggressive in breaking up some terrorist plots,” Landrieu said. “On the other hand, there’s some concern about an invasion of privacy, so I’m just going to listen to members on the (Senate intelligence) committee.”
Landrieu, who chairs the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Homeland Security, also said that the government needs the resources and ability to fight the growing threat of cyber security that ranges from lone hackers to government-supports efforts, such as from China.
Landrieu said there are 6 million cyberattacks on U.S. government networks every day.
“We are not in a scrimmage; we are in a war … this new war we’ve never fought before,” she said.