NSA spying under fire: 'You've got a problem'

Congress said they never intended to allow the National Security Agency to build a database of every phone call in America.
Associated Press
Jul 17, 2013

In a heated confrontation over domestic spying, members of Congress said Wednesday they never intended to allow the National Security Agency to build a database of every phone call in America. And they threatened to curtail the government's surveillance authority.

Top Obama administration officials countered that the once-secret program was legal and necessary to keep America safe. And they left open the possibility they could build similar databases of people's credit card transactions, hotel records and Internet searches.

The clash on Capitol Hill undercut President Barack Obama's assurances that Congress had fully understood the dramatic expansion of government power it authorized repeatedly over the past decade.

The House Judiciary Committee hearing also represented perhaps the most public, substantive congressional debate on surveillance powers since the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Previous debates have been largely theoretical and legalistic, with officials in the Bush and Obama administrations keeping the details hidden behind the cloak of classified information.

That changed last month when former government contractor Edward Snowden leaked documents to the Guardian newspaper revealing that the NSA collects every American's phone records, knowing that the overwhelming majority of people have no ties to terrorism.

Civil rights groups have warned for years that the government would use the USA Patriot Act to conduct such wholesale data collection. The government denied it.

The Obama administration says it needs a library of everyone's phone records so that when it finds a suspected terrorist, it can search its archives for the suspect's calling habits. The administration says the database was authorized under a provision in the Patriot Act that Congress hurriedly passed after 9/11 and reauthorized in 2005 and 2010.

The sponsor of that bill, Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., said Wednesday that Congress meant only to allow seizures directly relevant to national security investigations. No one expected the government to obtain every phone record and store them in a huge database to search later.

As Deputy Attorney General James Cole explained why that was necessary, Sensenbrenner cut him off and reminded him that his surveillance authority expires in 2015.

"And unless you realize you've got a problem," Sensenbrenner said, "that is not going to be renewed."

He was followed by Rep. Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y., who picked up where his colleague left off. The problem, he said, is that the administration considers "everything in the world" relevant to fighting terrorism.

Later, Rep. Blake Farenthold, R-Texas, asked whether the NSA could build similar databases of everyone's Internet searches, hotel records and credit card transactions.

Robert S. Litt, general counsel in the Office of Director of National Intelligence, didn't directly answer, saying it would depend on whether the government believed those records — like phone records — to be relevant to terrorism investigations.

After the phone surveillance became public, Obama assured Americans that Congress was well aware of what was going on.

"When it comes to telephone calls, every member of Congress has been briefed on this program," he said.

Whether lawmakers willingly kept themselves in the dark or were misled, it was apparent Wednesday that one of the key oversight bodies in Congress remained unclear about the scope of surveillance, more than a decade after it was authorized.

The Judiciary Committee's senior Democrat, Rep. John Conyers of Michigan, noted that the panel had "primary jurisdiction" over the surveillance laws that were the foundation for the NSA programs. Yet one lawmaker, Rep. Ted Poe, R-Texas, said some members of Congress wouldn't have known about the NSA surveillance without the sensational leaks: "Snowden, I don't like him at all, but we would never have known what happened if he hadn't told us."

The NSA says it only looks at numbers as part of narrow terrorism investigations, but that doesn't tell the whole story.

For the first time, NSA deputy director John C. Inglis disclosed Wednesday that the agency sometimes conducts what's known as three-hop analysis. That means the government can look at the phone data of a suspect terrorist, plus the data of all of his contacts, then all of those people's contacts, and finally, all of those people's contacts.

If the average person calls 40 unique people, three-hop analysis could allow the government to mine the records of 2.5 million Americans when investigating one suspected terrorist.

Rep Randy Forbes, R-Va., said such a huge database was ripe for government abuse. When Inglis said there was no evidence of that, Forbes interrupted:

"I said I wasn't going to yell at you and I'm going to try not to. That's exactly what the American people are worried about," he said. "That's what's infuriating the American people. They're understanding that if you collect that amount of data, people can get access to it in ways that can harm them."

The government says it stores everybody's phone records for five years. Cole explained that because the phone companies don't keep records that long, the NSA had to build its own database.

Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, asked why the government didn't simply ask the phone companies to keep their data longer. That way, the government could ask for specific information, rather than collecting information on millions of innocent people.

Inglis said it would be challenging, but the government was looking into it.

Near the end of the hearing, Litt struck a compromising tone. He said national security officials had tried to balance privacy and security.

"If the people in Congress decide that we've struck that balance in the wrong place, that's a discussion we need to have," he said.

Obama, too, has said he welcomes the debate over surveillance. But his administration never wanted the debate to be quite so specific.

That was obvious when Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., asked Litt whether he really believed the government could keep such a vast surveillance program a secret forever.

"Well," Litt replied, "we tried."

 

Comments

SamAdams

People think you're afraid because you BEHAVE like you're afraid. People who have no fears aren't willing to sacrifice essential liberties for NOTHING. I'm guessing you'll give up just about anything in the name of safety, and do it happily, whether it's a false hope on your part or not. I understand completely. I was like that myself. When I was, like, six...

grumpy

Another practitioner of sarcasm and even sliding into a bit of irony. It is welcome. Thanks Sam, it is something I tend to enjoy, even when pointed at me.

deertracker

Great comment meowmix!

Huron_1969

Information is power
Having everyones phone records might seem meaningless to many people, but once the ball gets rolling, it won't stop. Additional sources of information will be added as time goes by, byte by byte. Next thing you know there is a central database containing all of the private information about every citizen. Throw into the mix the IRS database of our financial and health information and you have a data warehouse containing extensive information about each and every one of us. That type of comprehensive information will influence elections, financial markets, the legal system, civil rights, and on and on and on.

Once the ball gets rolling, it'll be very difficult, if not impossible, to stop

SamAdams

Information is, indeed, power! How do you think the Nazis gathered up all the Jews? The United States used Census data (you know, the stuff they promised us was confidential and only to be used for a population count?) to round up the Japanese during World War II. If you REALLY think you're exempt, think again. You don't need to be a criminal. Sometimes, all you need is to be the "wrong" color, religion, or political persuasion!

meowmix

Wow! Phone tapping/internet technology was around in 1938? Again, what scares me the most is disorder that is infecting neo-cons. Thank god it's not transmittable to the sane.

grumpy

Did you read and comprehend what Sam wrote? She said where the information came from, and that the people of this country were promised the census data would NOT be used for any other purpose, they federal gov't LIED to the people. They federal gov't has a long history of doing that (lying) with information. Did you comprehend that or are you just seeing what you wish to see?

The Big Dog's back

ROFLMAO meowmix. Sure ruffled pooh's feathers.

The Big Dog's back

I think we should use the Census to round up right wingnuts.

meowmix

Agreed B.D.---toss them all in the State of Texas.

Mystery_Cheese

Then we can toss all the Democrats into California. We'll blast both states around their borders, so they no longer connect with the U.S., and then, maybe, without Democrats or Republicans fighting, we'll get something fixed in this country. Granted, there won't be many people left, but that's a good thing. Get rid of all these ignorant hate-mongers!

meowmix

Oh for crying out loud. Lets just all go back to tin cans and string then shall we?

Huron_1969

You missed my point.... and went off the deep end
I'm talking about not allowing the government to have a whole new level of control by means of information gathering and collection. I believe others have the same opinion but I suspect you are not okay with other people having an opinion different than yours. You might have a future with the government as their CTO

deertracker

@ meowmix
Really!

shucks

"I'm talking about not allowing the government to have a whole new level of control by means of information gathering and collection."
.......................So what do you suggest?

" I believe others have the same opinion but I suspect you are not okay with other people having an opinion different than yours."
................That goes for you too.

meowmix

Ain't that the truth 4shizzle?? :}

SamAdams

As far as I can see, NOBODY is against information gathering and data collection. Those in opposition are opposed to the WHOLESALE information gathering and data collection that's going on.

Yes, this information CAN be collected and analyzed. And when you have sufficient cause for a warrant, it SHOULD be reviewed. But just as computer spammers phish for private data, the govermment is phishing THROUGH private data. Both, as far as I'm concerned, are criminal acts, and both are real and present threats.

meowmix

So explain to me SA--if you are not opposed to information gathering and data collection, pray tell-should the NSA only target Muslims or foreigners? What would you say if one monitored call would prevent another Adam Lanza, James Holmes or Jared Loughner-- all AMERICANS! Would you be so quick to condemn the program then?

Huron_1969

4shizzle..... " I believe others have the same opinion but I suspect you are not okay with other people having an opinion different than yours."
................That goes for you too.

That is absolutely correct..... we all have the right to our own opinions and are free to voice them. When done with respect, we create a rich and valuable conversation.

J Cooper

Where's dog breath on this one, the administration was going to be the most open and transparent in history. All the far left wackos were upset by waterboarding and the tactics used to fight the war on terror by the Bush administration but its OK now to use the same tactics and to expand them because its Obama, what hypocrites.

grumpy

They didn't just kill the people targeted with drone strikes, they killed those who were anywhere near them. associates, innocents, women, children all mixed together. Also when the few (3 people) who were waterboarded, they got expanding information.
When someone is droned the information trail ends.

Now that the ability of the US bugging and filtering information has leaked the terrorists have learned new ways to not be detected, couriers, and face to face meetings. no way to listen in on those. But still the federal gov't will copy and save all info. And as Sam has shown, the gov't is phishing in it without a warrant.

hilltop

What we need from our leaders are afew that take the time to read what they approve. They're all too busy lining-up the next cocktail party / fundraiser.

Next, I don't care what political party you call "home", we are all in deep do-do when the Constitution becomes "just another piece of paper." Every time a law is passed that chips away at the 4th Amendment, we lose more ground. God help the man (or woman) that speaks out. Just ask Edward Snowden.

The media chooses the candidates, then spins their own choice into office. Doesn't matter if they're muggers, bugger or thieves, if the main-stream media wants them in, they'll make sure it happens. They have no backbone when it comes to confronting bureaucratic malfeasance, therefore the public gets no real facts.

Stash some gold or silver, stock some canned food and bullets. We're all going to need them soon with the direction our government is taking us.

arnmcrmn

Dont worry.....the government is collecting more data and records than you know about.

Government collecting millions of records on American drivers, study says

Read more: http://www.foxnews.com/politics/...

Really are you ...

The guy on the right is mad as heck, and the guy on the left is like I told you so.

SamAdams

ADDENDUM:

The guy on the right is mad as heck. But where was he when this all started? And the guy on the left is like I told you so. But where is he NOW?

Politics aside, something's either right or wrong. It's quite literally not possible for George W. Bush to have done something wrong, yet when Barack H. Obama does the SAME THING (or expands it, as he has), it's NOT wrong. Huh?

Thank god for all of this NSA nonsense. Nothing else was apparently bad enough under the Obama administration for the left to jump up and down the way it did when Bush did, well, pretty much ANYthing...

The Big Dog's back

I really get a kick out of these right wingers. They probably all have Facebook pages and have pictures and all their info for everyone to see. It would be funny if it wasn't so sad.

grumpy

Hey meowmix here ^ is another one (piddle puppy), much like yourself who thinks he can read minds, and is proud enough to brag about his inability.

J Cooper

If you wanted to round up the far left wackos, just flush.

Darwin's choice

I have a problem with the "government" being privy to everything! Watch this video, and then tell me how confident you are with who's in charge....and how easily someone can manipulate the system....
http://news.msn.com/videos/?ap=T...

She only has a sixth grade education.....!

Centauri

The Japanese-Americans were not the only group of people that the "confidential" US Census records were used against, but also Americans of German and Italian heritage.

http://www.foitimes.com/gasummar...
WWII Violations of German American

http://www.gaic.info/camp_doj.html

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