Dechert's Steven Bradbury
Dechert’s Steven Bradbury (Photo: Diego M. Radzinschi / LEG)

As the House Judiciary Committee’s top-ranking members today called for major reforms to the National Security Agency’s bulk collection of Americans’ phone records, a former George W. Bush administration lawyer urged them to keep the program intact.

Steven Bradbury, who became a partner at Dechert after he headed the Office of Legal Counsel at the U.S. Department of Justice, told the committee that Congress “should be very wary indeed” of changing the surveillance program under Section 215 of the USA Patriot Act.

President Barack Obama on Jan. 17 defended the program revealed by leaks by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, and today House Judiciary Committee Chairman Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) and Democrat Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) called for changes to the program.

Bradbury told the committee that the changes proposed by Obama are “disappointing” because the president bowed to political pressures.

“If reforms are adopted that would severely constrain the effectiveness and utility of the NSA programs, then Edward Snowden and his collaborators will have achieved their explicit objective of weakening the national security defenses and capabilities of the United States and diminishing the position of strength that America occupies in the world post-9/11,” Bradbury said in written testimony.

“These harms to our national security would come with no significant corresponding enhancements to civil liberties,” said Bradbury, who is also known for writing several memos while at the Justice Department that defended “advanced interrogation techniques” such as waterboarding.

Deputy Attorney General James Cole, testifying during the same hearing, said the Justice Department has not yet taken a position on a leading reform bill that aims to rein in the NSA’s data gathering, introduced by Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) in the House and Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) in the Senate.

Sensenbrenner, who introduced the USA Patriot Act, which authorized the NSA program, told Cole that the Section 215 program expires in June and there are not enough votes in Congress to reauthorize the program without major changes.

“Unless it is fixed, you Mr. Cole and the intelligence community will get nothing,” Sensenbrenner said.

Cole said the Justice Department continues to believe the program is lawful, but is working on a new approach to storing phone records as Obama has directed. “We’re trying to work through the best way to go about this,” Cole said. “We’re also trying to think outside the box to see if there’s something else we can come up with.”

Goodlatte said the programs need “significant reform in order to restore the trust of the American people and to protect Americans’ civil liberties,” while Conyers said that he is “struck by the growing, bipartisan consensus here.”

Contact Todd Ruger at truger@alm.com.