OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Likely Republican presidential contenders Jeb Bush and Chris Christie on Friday heartily endorsed the Patriot Act and the permission it gives the government to collect phone records in bulk, mocking those who deride the intelligence overhaul passed after the Sept. 11 attacks as an encroachment on civil liberties.
"There is ample evidence that the Patriot Act has been a tool to keep us safe, ample evidence," Bush said at the Southern Republican Leadership Conference. "There is no evidence of anyone's civil liberties being violated because of it."
Christie, who served as a U.S. attorney before being elected New Jersey governor, told the same crowd that the Patriot Act helped him as a prosecutor to win convictions of defendants tied to the 2001 attacks. "I'm the only person in this national conversation at the moment who has used the Patriot Act, signed off on it and convicted terrorists because of it," he said.
The forceful defense of the law came as Congress struggled to meet a deadline to renew or replace a portion of the law known as Section 215, which allows the National Security Agency to collect phone records in bulk and the FBI to obtain a wide range of records that agents deem relevant to terrorism investigations.
Earlier this week, Christie said law-abiding citizens had nothing to fear from such surveillance efforts, while at multiple campaign stops, Bush said the law, signed by his brother, former President George W. Bush, is necessary to "protect the homeland," adding that an extension of Section 215 "is definitely part of a comprehensive strategy for foreign policy."
"I do know, because I've checked with a lot of people inside and outside of government, that there's no evidence, not a shred of evidence, of violations of civil liberties because of the Patriot Act," Bush told reporters in Salem, New Hampshire, on Thursday.
In oversight reports issued since at least 2003, the Justice Department inspector general has identified dozens of incidents it blamed on the FBI in which demands issued under a separate section of the Patriot Act were unauthorized or improper.
In some cases, the FBI obtained records for phone numbers no longer used by targets of its investigations or permission to conduct the investigations had already lapsed. Some of the FBI violations were deemed "willful and intentional," according to internal FBI records.
An analysis issued Thursday by the Justice Department's inspector general found that FBI agents testified that the law contains valuable investigative tools, but noted agents "did not identify any major case developments" that came from using Section 215.
The Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, an independent bipartisan agency, declared NSA's phone records collections program illegal in 2014, and a federal court of appeals reached the same conclusion earlier this month.
"It's not an accurate statement to say the Section 215 programs haven't violated rights," said Neema Singh Guliani of the American Civil Liberties Union, which challenged the NSA phone records sweeps in court. "They've had an enormous effect on privacy ... in a way that weakened our protections against government gaining information about innocent people."
Among Republican senators opposed to allowing the NSA to continue to gather phone records in bulk are two other GOP White House hopefuls, Sens. Rand Paul and Ted Cruz. They argue the act makes it too easy for intelligence agencies and law enforcement to violate citizens' constitutional rights with no consequences.
Paul spent 10 hours making that case Wednesday on the Senate floor, where he blasted the law as "the most unpatriotic of acts" and criticized those calling for its renewal. While Christie and Bush didn't cite Paul or Cruz by name, their comments Friday about the law were aimed their way.
"These same folks who are criticizing this now will be the same people who will stand on Capitol Hill if there's another attack on America and interrogate a CIA director or the FBI and ask them why they didn't connect the dots," Christie said.
Associated Press writer Ted Bridis contributed to this report from Washington. Beaumont reported from New Hampshire.
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