Sen. Coats criticizes claims about phone data collection, changes to program

(How did your Senators and Representative vote on the USA Freedom Act, i.e. government surveillance? Find it here.)

Under changes, phone companies would collect and retain phone surveillance data, and the National Security Agency would have to get court approval to access it.

IndyStar.com Washington Bureau
By Maureen Groppe
6/2/15

WASHINGTON — A visibly frustrated Sen. Dan Coats railed this week against what he called blatantly false statements by a member of his own party that threaten the federal government’s surveillance powers.

The result of the misinformation campaign, Coats said, is a devil’s choice between killing the National Security Agency’s bulk collection of phone data or having the data collected in a less secure and useful way.

The Indiana Republican, who serves on the Senate intelligence committee, objects to House-passed changes to the data collection program which the Senate backed 67 to 32 Tuesday. The USA Freedom Act now goes to President Barack Obama, who has promised to sign it.

Under the change, phone companies, not the NSA, would collect and retain the data. The NSA could access the information only after getting permission from a federal court. The data includes who makes and receives calls, when they occur, and how long they last.

The government’s ability to collect the data lapsed Sunday, when the program’s legal authority expired over lawmakers’ inability to resolve privacy concerns with the need to prevent terrorist attacks. The program caused controversy because it collected the phone data of millions of Americans who have no ties to terrorism.

Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, who is seeking the 2016 GOP nomination for president, filibustered a temporary extension of the program Sunday.

“I think we spend so much money on people about whom there is no suspicion that we don’t have enough time and money left to go after the people who would actually harm us,” Paul said.

Coats said Paul rebuffed his invitations to be briefed by the intelligence committee about how the program works.

Because of that refusal, Coats said, he and other members of the intelligence committee have had to publicly share more information about the program to correct misrepresentations — and that has given valuable information to the nation’s enemies.

“The program is being compromised by the very fact that we’ve had to come on the (Senate) floor and publicly address it,” he said.

Paul said during his filibuster Sunday that some in Washington “secretly want there to be an attack on the United States so they can blame it on me.”

Coats called that an irresponsible charge.

“To allege that we want some terrorist attack to be successful to prove that Rand Paul is wrong — no one is thinking that,” he said on CNN Monday.

Asked how much of Paul’s actions are related to the Kentucky senator’s presidential bid, Coats said that was for others to decide. But, he added to CNN: “Obviously he is running for president and this is a key issue that he has used to gain notoriety and support for his campaign.”

Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., praised Coats Tuesday for his repeated efforts over the past week to illuminate “the truth of this issue.”

Ultimately, Coats ended up opposing the House’s changes to the program.

He complained that phone companies’ retention of records would be voluntary, instead of mandatory, and said there won’t be as much oversight to prevent abuses as there is with the current program.

Coats called the issue one of the most important he’s dealt with in the Senate and said he hasn’t relished the public sparring with Paul.

“Having had to go through all of this and raise these kinds of issues here and talk about a fellow colleague is not fun,” he said on the Senate floor Monday. “But I could not stand by and watch a program that is helping protect American people from known terrorist threats and let their safety be jeopardized by falsehoods that are being said about what this program is and is not.”

(Contact Maureen Groppe at mgroppe@gannett.com or @mgroppe on Twitter.)

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