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A Victory for Privacy or Extension of Mass Surveillance? Co-Sponsor of USA FREEDOM Act Rejects Bill

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Earlier this week, President Obama signed into law a measure ending the mass phone surveillance program exposed by Edward Snowden two years ago. The Senate passed the USA FREEDOM Act on Tuesday with a vote of 67 to 32. The law stops the bulk collection of telephone records. It instead requires the NSA to ask companies for a specific user’s data rather than vacuuming up all the records at once. Congressman Jared Polis initially co-sponsored the legislation but ended up voting against the measure. He joins us from Washington, D.C.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Congressmember Polis, we wanted to switch gears, while we still have you with us, to address the issue of the USA FREEDOM Act. Earlier this week, President Obama signed into law the measure ending the mass phone surveillance program exposed by Edward Snowden two years ago. The Senate passed the USA FREEDOM Act Tuesday with a vote of 67 to 32. The law stops the bulk collection of telephone records, instead requiring the NSA to ask phone companies for a specific user’s data rather than vacuuming up all the records at once. Congressman Polis, you initially co-sponsored the legislation but ended up voting against the measure in the House. Can you talk about the USA FREEDOM Act and your efforts to rein in spying by the Drug Enforcement Administration, as well?

REP. JARED POLIS: Yeah, so, certainly, it’s a strong step forward for privacy advocates. I would argue it doesn’t go far enough. It leaves much of the PATRIOT Act intact. But certainly, some of the most extreme violations and the mass collection of personal data will no longer be authorized under the PATRIOT Act, so it’s a strong step forward. I would like to see additional reforms within the PATRIOT Act so that we can best reach the balance between privacy and national security.

We also passed an amendment just yesterday which ended the DEA’s authorization, which was never an explicit authorization, but it was authority they took upon themself—Drug Enforcement Agency, that is—to engage in mass surveillance of personal information, as well. So Congress attached to an appropriations bill a specific removal of any authority from the Drug Enforcement Agency to engage in mass surveillance.

AMY GOODMAN: But this USA FREEDOM Act that you co-sponsored and then ended up voting against, what was the original bill, and what did you feel was taken out that was too important to be taken out, which is why you ultimately voted against it?

REP. JARED POLIS: Sure. So, the USA FREEDOM Act is essentially a reform of the PATRIOT Act, which is the post-9/11 authorization that allowed—gave the government more tools to look into the terrorist threat against our country. It’s a broad scope to that legislation. There’s parts of it that are unobjectionable, and there’s others that raise very important privacy concerns. One of the set of privacy concerns raised were around one of the processes around mass surveillance or mass gathering of data. There was a blanket authorization, or at least the executive branch interpreted the authorization of the PATRIOT Act to provide them with the authority for a blanket authorization for metadata, etc., from people. That specific authority has been ended.

Where the bill still goes too far, in my opinion, is it allows for keywords to be used for mass surveillance of information that’s retained at the phone companies. For instance, a city or geographical term, however specific—it might be the entire state of New York or California or Los Angeles, there’s really not any specific legal parameters around this—could still be used in a government request of information that continues to be stockpiled at a private company. We would also want to make sure that security concerns are addressed with regards to how companies maintain their databases of our personal information.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And do you believe, Congressman Polis, that Edward Snowden should be allowed to come back to the United States without facing charges?

REP. JARED POLIS: Well, he violated our law, so clearly he would face charges. I would—certainly, I’m not the attorney general, but if I were, I think some sort of plea bargain where he would serve some time in prison would be appropriate in punishment for his wrongdoings. But I don’t see any particular reason why he should have to spend the rest of his life in Russia. I think if there’s an accommodation that can be reached where he agrees to serve a term in prison in recognition of his violation of the law, that might be the most appropriate outcome.

AMY GOODMAN: Hillary Clinton, in an interview with The Guardian, said that Edward Snowden should come back to this country, the sort of—I think the words being used by the administration, “man up,” and he could launch a vigorous public and legal defense. But we see what happened with Chelsea Manning, at the time Bradley Manning. We did not hear his voice in all the years that he was held, that he was tried, now imprisoned for 35 years. When someone is charged with this level of charge, it is rare that you can actually hear them. Why would Edward Snowden believe he could be heard?

REP. JARED POLIS: Yeah, I don’t blame him—yeah, I don’t blame him for not coming back. I think if I were in that situation, I wouldn’t come back, either, absent some sort of plea bargain or assurance, whether it’s five years in prison, three years in prison, whatever it is. I think he’s worried about coming back and facing the rest of his life in prison, and perhaps even at times solitary confinement. We certainly heard about some of the issues with regard to Chelsea Manning. So, I certainly understand why he’s not coming back and facing an uncertain fate.

AMY GOODMAN: And last question, as you—I know you have to leave—about fracking. Colorado is a big fracking state. Oklahoma just passed a ban on fracking bans. Maryland just passed a ban on fracking. Can you tell us your position in Colorado, what you think should happen around this controversial means of extracting fuel from the earth?

REP. JARED POLIS: Well, I’d love to see a middle ground between those two extremes, and I personally would like to think that’s the Colorado way, where we empower communities to make decisions around zoning and appropriate use of lands that are within their jurisdiction. So, I would continue to oppose a statewide ban in Colorado like New York and Maryland have done. I would also strongly oppose any legislation that tries to preempt local authority. In fact, in our state, I’ve long advocated legislation that gives explicit local authority for the types of zoning decisions that our cities and counties have with regard to every other type of industrial activity, and I think that they should appropriately have that with regard to fracking activity, as well, to help protect their communities.

AMY GOODMAN: Congressman Jared Polis, thanks so much for being with us, Democratic congressman from Colorado, the first openly gay parent member of Congress.

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