WASHINGTON – The controversy over the federal government’s effort to track terrorists through telephone records and Internet activities of its citizens is reigniting a national debate over the balancing act between national security and liberty.
Minnesota’s delegates are divided on the issue, with Republican Reps. Michele Bachmann, John Kline and Erik Paulsen having voted to preserve the government’s power to collect private data, presumably to aid efforts to prevent terrorist activity.
None responded to requests for comment from the Star Tribune. But in a radio interview Friday, Paulsen defended the National Security Agency’s secret surveillance efforts, saying that “we absolutely do know that this has prevented terrorist attacks.” The surveillance, he said, “does guarantee that the president and those in the intelligence committee will have access to important information.”
Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., denounced the telephone surveillance program as government overreach that encroaches on privacy rights, although he said he does not blame President Obama. The surveillance began as a Bush administration policy, but was reauthorized during Obama’s presidency.
“It’s just too broad,” Ellison said during a CNN interview Friday. “We need to have some requirement that there be some real basis for surveilling people before you look at their phone records.”
Launched in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the Patriot Act contains provisions that allow government agencies to gather foreign intelligence information from both U.S. and non-U.S. citizens. Ellison, Sen. Al Franken and Democrat Reps. Betty McCollum and Tim Walz voted against extending the Patriot Act in 2011 and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act in 2012.
Democrats Sen. Amy Klobuchar and Rep. Collin Peterson voted to extend both bills.
“I have worked to ﬁnd that right balance and have voted for provisions to increase oversight and transparency of these programs,” said Klobuchar, who voted against the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act during the Bush administration, but supported it under Obama. Peterson voted against the initial Patriot Act in 2001, but has supported extensions since.
As a member of the House Intelligence Committee, Bachmann is privy to some of the nation’s most sensitive national security secrets. Obama on Friday pointedly said that Congress was “fully apprised” of the sweeping surveillance being done.
But Bachmann has remained silent on the matter since the story first broke. Franken, who chairs the Privacy, Technology and the Law subcommittee, released a statement Friday that noted his concern about “the lack of transparency of these programs.”
Franken has called for the release of court opinions that authorized the widespread monitoring. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., who has worked with Franken to roll back Patriot Act provisions, introduced a bill Friday that would require a warrant before any government agency could sift through the phone records of Americans.
Corey Mitchell is a correspondent in the Star Tribune Washington Bureau. Star Tribune correspondent Kevin Diaz contributed to this report.