John Walsh, Joe Biden, April Walsh, Kennedy Walsh

Sen. John Walsh, D-Mont. talks Vice President Joe Biden on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Feb. 11, 2014, after Biden participated in Walsh's ceremonial Senate swearing in ceremony. Walsh's daughter-in-law April Walsh holds his granddaughter Kennedy left. (AP Photo/Lauren Victoria Burke)

HELENA – Sen. John Walsh, D-Mont., introduced his first bill Thursday, to restrict the ability of federal security agencies to secretly collect phone records and other personal data on U.S. citizens.

Walsh’s bill, titled the Civil Liberties Defense Act, also would require the National Security Agency to purge records of already collected data that don’t comply with standards established by the act.

“As I’ve been traveling around the state … this is an issue that I’m hearing about from Montanans, about the government trampling on our civil liberties,” he said in an interview. “I said that when I came here, I wanted to identify problems, find a fix for the problem and solve that problem.”

Walsh became Montana’s second U.S. senator early last month, appointed Feb. 7 by Gov. Steve Bullock to replace Democrat Max Baucus, who resigned after being confirmed as U.S. ambassador to China.

He’ll serve out Baucus’ term this year while also running for re-election.

Walsh is being challenged in the Democratic primary in June by Wilsall rancher Dirk Adams, and U.S. Rep. Steve Daines, R-Mont., also has filed to run for the seat.

Walsh said his bill, referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee, has a decent chance of passing, because he’s spoken with many senators in both parties who believe security-agency snooping must be reined in.

He said his bill, if passed, would end the secret, mass collection of telephone, bank, credit and Internet-usage records by government agencies such as the NSA and the FBI, which say the records are used in anti-terrorism investigations.

Any request for such records would need approval by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, and the requesting agency would have to focus on a specific individual and provide specific facts on why the information is relevant to an investigation of international terrorism or foreign intelligence.

NSA also would have to report to Congress within six months on how it will purge records gathered without these new standards.

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The bill also applies similar restrictions to national security letters, or NSLs, which are used by the FBI to request the same type of records directly from banks, phone companies and credit firms without the knowledge of their customers.

Under the bill, an FBI agent would need judicial approval to send an NSL, and would have to provide specific information on the letter’s target.

“If we just focused on the (NSA) requests, they would use one or the other,” Walsh said. “This way we would close loopholes in both areas.”

The former Montana National Guard commander said the bill would still allow investigation of terrorist suspects, but prevent mass snooping into the records of innocent citizens.

“As a soldier, going over to Iraq and Afghanistan, I volunteered to fight to uphold the constitution of the United States and the freedoms that we have today,” he said. “Now that I’m not in the military, I’m not going to give up that fight.”

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Missoulian State Bureau reporter Mike Dennison can be reached at 1-800-525-4920 or by email at mike.dennison@lee.net.

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