Talking tech since 2003

It’s been well over a month since Edward Snowden leaked information on the NSA’s PRISM surveillance program to the Guardian. The program doesn’t sit well with a lot of citizens, though it continues to receive support — albeit wavering — from members of Congress. Curious about how my own state senator felt about the program, I did a little digging to get an idea about how Senator Bob Casey (Pa., D) reacted after the story broke.

Pennsylvania Senator Bob Casey (D)
Pennsylvania Senator Bob Casey (D)

And, because we’re now a month and a half out from that initial Guardian story, I wanted to get a fresher take on the situation. So I reached out to the senator via his website and received a response via email last night.

First, it’s important to mention that Senator Casey was a “yes” vote for several key pieces of surveillance-related legislation. He was a yes for the FISA Act in 2008, a yes for an extension of the Patriot Act in 2011 and a yes for an extension of FISA in 2012.

With those votes in mind, it’s no surprise that Senator Casey’s initial reaction to the Guardian story seemed to be one in defense of the PRISM surveillance program. According to a June 14 article from, Casey said he believed that “the country has done a good job overall of balancing civil liberties with national security concerns, but it requires vigilance.”

He then seemed to suggest that everyone was jumping the gun on the issue, perhaps blowing it a bit out of proportion.

“Like a lot of things in Washington, people have opinions sometimes a little too early or prematurely. This is one where jumping to conclusions too soon is going to get both sides in the debate in trouble,” he said. “I don’t have any direct evidence that that’s the case (that NSA is doing anything wrong). I think we’re still kind of at the beginning of this.”

And his thoughts on Edward Snowden? “If he disclosed classified information … he should be prosecuted.”

In a June 17 post on PoliticsPA, though, Casey expressed “concerns” about how the Obama administration was interpreting the Patriot Act — more specifically, Section 215, which details how the government can take its case to a FISA court and compel companies to hand over data on their users.

A paragraph of the response I received from Casey’s office was very similar to the statement published on PoliticsPA, though my response also made mention of a classified briefing that Casey attended.

“I have concerns about how the administration has interpreted Section 215 of the Patriot Act, which makes it easier to obtain business records deemed relevant to a national-security investigation.  On June 13, I attended a classified briefing with administration officials to discuss these issues and Section 215 of the Patriot Act.  I look forward to continue examining this issue in the current session of Congress to ensure that we are not sacrificing our fundamental values and ideals in the face of critical threats.”

And while Casey was quick to suggest last month that Edward Snowden should be prosecuted, his office’s response to my inquiry — which did ask about the senator’s thoughts on Snowden, specifically — had very little to do with the man who set all of this into motion. In fact, outside of providing a summary of the Snowden tale, he was rarely mentioned and Casey avoided passing judgment altogether. Instead, he stated that “The Administration has urged Russia to transfer Snowden back to the U.S. to face justice for the crimes with which he is charged,” leaving any personal opinion out of it entirely.

You can read the entire email I received here (PDF).

Based on his initial interviews at the start of the scandal, his remarks a few days after and his recent email response, Senator Casey’s position seems to have shifted slightly from supportive to somewhat skeptical. In just a couple of days, Casey went from trusting the government to balance civil liberties and intelligence gathering, to feeling that the administration misinterpreted Section 215 of the Patriot Act — translation: the government, at the behest of the Obama administration, was overstepping its bounds.

All of the strong language the senator had with regards to Edward Snowden seems to have vanished, as well, with Casey seemingly punting on the topic of Snowden just a month after he stated that he felt the former NSA contractor deserved to be prosecuted.

Perhaps these shifts are due to pressure from constituents. Maybe the senator simply took a closer look at the information available to him and saw things differently. But it appears the senator is a little disappointed with the way the legislation he supported has been used by the current administration. We’ll have to wait and see if that translates into withdrawn support for re-authorizations down the line.


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