HOUGHTON - While he wants to protect Americans against intrusive surveillance, the National Security Agency's collection of phone metadata falls on the right side of that divide, U.S. Rep. Dan Benishek said during a visit to The Daily Mining Gazette Friday.
Benishek, R-Crystal Falls, helped to vote down an amendment from fellow Michigan Republican Rep. Justin Amash Wednesday. The bill was meant to limit NSA activities. It would have required the government to first prove a reasonable suspicion that a target was involved in terrorist activities before collecting information about the time and recipient of phone calls.
The bill was defeated 217-205, with votes falling outside usual party lines. The White House, U.S. House Majority Leader John Boehner and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi campaigned for the defeat of the amendment, which was backed by many civil libertarians on the left and right.
"I gave this a lot of thought before doing the vote," Benishek said. "... What we want to do is be sure that nobody's individual liberties are invaded, but still thwart terrorist attacks."
Benishek said while he shares the skepticism about the government, the current program does not involve reading emails or listening to phone calls, and requires a court order to access the information. However, he said, if there are problems with the oversight of the program, they should be investigated.
"There's more information in the phone book about you than is gathered (in the calls)," he said. "I don't want anybody's personal information gathered. But if our troops capture somebody in the Taliban in Afghanistan and they get a cellphone, they want to be able to find out if they're calling people in America. If that's happening, then they get a court order and they investigate what's happening there. But nothing happens without a court order. If that's not happening, then we need to investigate that."
Benishek also chairs the health subcommittee of the U.S. House Committee on Veterans Affairs, which has been addressing the problem of military sexual abuse. Last year, there were 26,000 sexual assaults within the military, 87 percent of which went unreported, according to the Department of Defense.
Benishek's subcommittee held hearings last weekend with testimony from four victims of military sexual assault on their difficulties in getting their cases heard and getting treatment.
Benishek is sponsoring legislation in the U.S. House to change military sexual assault prosecutions to remove the commanding officer's ability to stop investigations. Kristen Gillibrand, D-N.Y., is sponsoring the corresponding bill in the U.S. Senate.
"Sometimes the chain of command will stop a prosecution, and people don't have any confidence in the system that anything's going to be done about it," he said. "That's why there's so much underreporting, and it can't go on."
Friday morning, Benishek attended a roundtable discussion at the Baraga County Memorial Hospital with administrators from Baraga, Aspirus Keweenaw Hospital and Aspirus Ontonagon Hospital discussing their difficulties.
The Affordable Care Act includes Medicare reimbursement cuts designed to streamline costs. Benishek said they are projected to result in $2 billion in reimbursement cuts to the 1st Congressional District, including about $68 million to Houghton County.
"That's going to make it tough for these hospitals to continue to be operational," he said. "Health care reimbursement's been a problem for small hospitals, and I'm just trying to make sure that I listen to what the administrators are saying is going on in their lives to make sure their hospitals can remain viable."