Sen. Richard Burr Defends Bulk Phone Record Collection

PHOTO: Senator Richard Burr speaks at a press conference to announce new proposed legislation to limit President Obamas ability to release prisoners from Guantanamo in Washington, Jan. 13, 2015. PlaySamuel Corum/Getty Images
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With key provisions of the Patriot Act set to expire, Senate Intelligence Committee chair Richard Burr today defended the federal government's bulk phone-record collection, saying it's "very effective at keeping America safe."

Congress is set to debate the future of the Patriot Act this month, and much of that debate will focus on the law's controversial Section 215, which the government has for years used to gather Americans' phone records in bulk.

"I think it's very effective at keeping America safe," Burr, a Republican from North Carolina, told ABC News' Martha Raddatz.

Burr recently introduced a bill with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, to reauthorize Section 215's current language when it expires June 1.

Burr said Americans' privacy is protected in the program, and the government doesn't use the information gathered for any nefarious purposes.

"We don't know whose they are and the only time we're interested in them is if we know they have talked to a telephone number of a terrorist and if that happens we have to go to court and a FISA judge looks at the evidence and gives us permission then to find out whose telephone number that is," Burr said. "We've had absolutely no incident of anybody's privacy being intruded on."

The protections to which Burr referred are not contained in the Patriot Act itself, but were introduced by the Obama administration after the Section 215 program was revealed by Edward Snowden, and, in the absence of action by Congress, could be withdrawn by a future president.

A broad coalition of advocacy organizations, ranging from the ACLU to the Gun Owners of America, wrote a letter this week condemning Burr and McConnell's "straight reauthorization" approach, which has divided members of the Republican majority.

"Proposals such as S.1035 [the bill proposed by Burr and McConnell] ignore this original intention and fail to address the deleterious impact that mass surveillance conducted under Section 215 continues to have on our privacy, economy, and democracy," the groups wrote in an open letter to the House and Senate Majority and Minority leaders.

One alternative to Burr and McConnell's bill, the USA Freedom Act, would halt the NSA's bulk collection of Americans' phone records, although the records would still be collected elsewhere. They would be held instead by the phone companies themselves, which could turn them over only if a court deemed it reasonable to suspect that they were related to an international terrorist organization.

The USA Freedom Act, supported by House Speaker John Boehner, is expected to be passed in that body next week. Its fate in the Senate is less certain, given McConnell's opposition.

In the Senate, the charge in support of the USA Freedom Act is led by Republican Mike Lee and Democrat Patrick Leahy, and has the support of presidential candidate Ted Cruz.

But Burr said on "This Week" that the bill would take American counterterror efforts back to a "pre-911" era.

"We might have been able to stop 9/11 with bulk collection," said Burr, who cited the claim, made by some in the intelligence community, that the metadata program could have averted the Sept. 11 terror attacks by capturing the phone records of hijacker Khalid al-Mihdhar.

"They suggested that if we had been able to bulk collect phone numbers, we could have traced and connected that dot," the senator told Raddatz.

These claims have been the subject of intense debate in the intelligence community.