Sen. Angus King: 'The Fourth Amendment Isn't Absolute'

Susan Jones | June 1, 2015 | 7:28am EDT
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Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., talks with a reporter as he leaves the Capitol following his address to the Senate in Washington, Sunday, May 31, 2015. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen)

( - In attempting to revise the USA Patriot Act, the Senate "is trying to balance" its national security responsibility with the Fourth Amendment and privacy rights, Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) told CNN's "State of the Union" on Sunday.

"But the Fourth Amendment isn't absolute," he insisted. "It said people shall be free of unreasonable searches and seizures. We are always trying to strike the balance between those two principles, in light of risks and in light of technology."

But the Fourth Amendment also says warrants must describe the particular places or persons to be searched.

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), a fierce critic of the USA Patriot Act, says the law (now expired) allows the government to issue general warrants -- for Verizon phone records, for example -- instead of for particular individuals.

"[T]he biggest part of the Fourth Amendment for our Founding Fathers was that a warrant should be individualized," Paul said in a speech on the Senate floor Sunday night. " General warrants were what we fought the revolution over."

The Fourth Amendment reads: "The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized."

King told CNN he "strongly" advocates protecting Americans' privacy rights. But -- "we also have to be aware that we are under a threat. And it strikes me as an unusual position for Senator Paul, for example, to be talking about essentially unilaterally disarming an important national security tool at a time when I have never seen the threat level higher."

King, a member of the Senate intelligence committee, said he agrees with a revised version of the Patriot Act, called the USA Freedom Act, that would bar the government from holding Americans' telephone records. Instead, the phone companies would retain that data.

"I think moving the data out of the government is an important step," King said. "I have been lobbying in the Intelligence Committee for two years for just that step. The problem I have is that the bill, as currently drafted, has no requirement whatsoever that the phone companies hold the data for any particular period of time.

King emphasized that the issue does not involve the content of telephone conversations: "Nine out of 10 people I talk to on the street say, I don't want NSA listening to my phone calls. That's not what we are talking about. What we are talking about is the telephone numbers and what -- who those numbers call, not any content.

"For example, the Tsarnaev brothers in Boston, right after the marathon, to be able to check their phone number and see who they had called around the country to determine whether this was a couple guys in Boston or a national plot."

King said there should be "some reasonable requirement" for phone companies to hold the metadata for a certain period of time:

"My concern is that, if you move it out of the government, leave it with the phone companies, and the phone companies say, well, we're deciding we're only going to hold that data for a week or a month or six months, then the program loses its functionality altogether, and you have in effect repealed it without really saying so.

"And that's been the issue that I have been trying to raise throughout this process, is, there should be some reasonable requirement for holding the data, if, indeed, you think the program has some value. And I do."

The government's bulk collection of Americans telephone records ended at midnight. The Senate is expected to take up the USA Freedom Act later this week.

Sen. Rand Paul said for him, the question is: "Will the new bill still allow bulk collection by the phone companies? Will they be able to put into the search engine, not an individual for whom we have suspicion but an entire corporation? This is what was revealed when we saw the warrant that was revealed that had Verizon's name on it.

"We had the Director of National Intelligence come before the American people, come before Congress, swear under oath that they weren't doing this. Part of my problem with the intelligence gathering in our country is it's hard for me to have trust. It's hard for me to have trust in the people that we're giving great power to."

Paul said more money should be spent on FBI agents who analyze data, so they can find particular suspects, then investigate their records. "I think we spend so much money on people for 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 also said defenders of the government's massive data collection program are trying to use fear to continue their unconstitutional searches:

"They want to take just a little bit of your liberty but they get it by making you afraid. They want you to fear and give up your liberty. They tell you if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear. That's a far cry from the standard we were founded upon -- innocent until proven guilty."

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