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News & Advance: Lynchburg's Goodlatte at Fore of Civil Liberties Fight

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Washington, May 10, 2015 | comments

There’s a civil liberties revolution brewing in the House of Representatives, and Rep. Bob Goodlatte, as chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, is leading the fight.

When Edward Snowden, the National Security Agency whistleblower, began leaking details of the NSA’s intelligence gathering operations and the scope of the data the U.S. government was collecting from around the globe, many Americans were shocked. And nothing shocked the average American more than the revelation that the NSA was vacuuming up metadata on every, single cellphone call made in the country. Not the actual voice content of calls, but data that could identify who made a call, to whom, from where using what cell towers and for how long. The agency was then storing the information at massive data centers built around the country, including one in the deserts of Utah.

The clincher for many Americans and civil liberties advocates was that none of it was done with a warrant. The NSA used an obscure section of the USA Patriot Act, passed in the immediate wake of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, as the legal foundation for its program.

That just didn’t sit well with Goodlatte, and rightly so.

Though the Sixth District congressman is as strong on law-and-order issues as any Republican, the lawyer and former aide to the late Caldwell Butler, the Republican congressman from Roanoke who played a pivotal role on the Judiciary Committee in the impeachment of President Richard Nixon, is just as strong on issues of government overreach and impingement of personal liberties.

Which brings us to this past week and two big, news stories.

First, a three-judge panel of the Second Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously declared the NSA phone data collection program unconstitutional in a sweeping victory for privacy advocates.

Second, Goodlatte successfully shepherded a massive intelligence bill, the USA Freedom Act of 2015, through the Judiciary Committee on a 25-2 vote, sending it to the full House for action.

The Patriot Act, last renewed in 2010, sunsets on June 1 if Congress takes no action to renew it.

With less than three weeks to go, a major fight between the House and the U.S. Senate is about to explode onto the public stage. The House — led by Goodlatte, Rep. James Sensenbrenner (the Republican who authored the original Patriot Act) and the House leadership — want to see major reforms to the intelligence-gathering process, especially in the wake of the Snowden revelations. In the Senate, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is holding firm for a blanket extension, addressing none of the concerns of civil libertarians.

Right now, it’s a matter of which chamber’s legislation is first to gain approval. And in that race, Bob Goodlatte is ahead. If he and the House leadership can quickly approve the USA Freedom Act and send their legislation to the Senate first, then the House bill becomes the primary path for reform.

First and foremost, Goodlatte’s bipartisan legislation ends the NSA’s warrantless, bulk collection of metadata by clarifying and rewriting Section 215 of the Patriot Act. But equally important are reforms of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act federal court that handles highly sensitive intelligence cases. Goodlatte’s bill creates a panel of privacy experts to advise the court on behalf of the American public and also greatly increases transparency of the court itself. Under the bill, for example, all major opinions of the court must be made public and the U.S. attorney general and director of national intelligence regularly report to Congress and the American people how their intelligence gathering powers are being used.

Goodlatte, a member of Congress for more than 20 years, is not naive; he knows America has mortal enemies abroad who must be dealt with. He also knows that intelligence gathering simply cannot take place in glare of legal sunshine. But he also has been a staunch defender of the individual when confronted by the power of the central government.

The intelligence reforms he and his Democratic and Republican colleagues have crafted strike a good balance between the need to protect the nation and the need to protect the individual from the nation’s government. We expect the full House to concur and hope the U.S. Senate sides with him in the fight over the Patriot Act, a needed weapon in the war on terrorism but one in need of reform.
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