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

Centauri

http://www.aim.org/aim-report/ex...
"Exposing Un-American Activities" December 8, 2010

The Hero Zone's picture
The Hero Zone

A legitimate question, and one in which I play Devil's Advocate for possibly one, both, or neither of the issues it draws upon (as my view doesn't matter for what I am about to ask):

If through the prism of "right to privacy" the government can't tell you what to do in the bedroom or when/how you can abort a pregnancy, how then can this monitoring be justified if our privacy actually doesn't matter?

This was an odd thought I had while driving today that I haven't heard anyone here or through a media outlet of some kind discuss. Again, please note my possible D.A. status and the fact this is a hypothetical. I'd like to learn, not pee into a sea of pee.

grumpy

Does anyone expect the federal gov't to not look at information they gathered? They don't feel the need to bother to go through the court to do so. They are special, they are the gov't. Look at the track record of the federal gov't. Have they ever stayed within the lines? But then we need to grow the size of the federal gov't, cause only the gov't knows best. They will keep you safe. And only take away some of your Constitutional rights to do so, well just a little of your rights every year till there are dman few left. We get closer every year, or more accurately, every 4 year election cycle.

meowmix

I'd lay you dollar to donuts that if the founding fathers had a crystal ball and could see the technology of today's world, there would be ALOT of changes made to the Constitution. I just don't get it with righties- your sacred Constitution when it comes to what suits YOUR agenda but you have issues with it-- i.e., gay rights, womens rights...ad nauseum.

grumpy

You are 100% correct in your statement that the founding fathers had a crystal ball. The "crystal ball" is the provision they made in the Constitution for changing it. Two ways were added for doing so. One is a Constitutional Convention, has never happened yet and Amendments which have. If you wish to give up my Constitutional right you simply have to get an Amendment passed. That is the crystal ball that is included in the Constitution for those who wish to change it. Good Luck!

Following the strictures of the Constitution is the same as following laws of the gov't or the rules of the game. Both can be changed but only when a cllear majority of people agree to the change. See how smart the founding fathers were? they included several ways for the "rules" to be changed.

meowmix

As I questioned SamAdams earlier, I'll now pose the same question to you--

What would you say if one monitored call would prevent another Adam Lanza, James Holmes or Jared Loughner-- all AMERICANS from killing so many innocents, would you support it then? Or are you just that cold hearted and selfish of your own skin?

SamAdams

One question right back atcha: Do they have a warrant? The answer to THAT question makes the difference in the answer to MINE.

2cents

"Adam Lanza, James Holmes"

Quiet, weirdo's, we need to put the nut houses back in place and tell the ACLU they blew it by letting all the crazy's out unless they would be a harm. DA!

grumpy

As Sam said above and before, if you had read. If there is probable cause and a judge grants the gov't a warrant to search, then by all means they can do so. If you understand at all the act that allowed the gov't to copy and save the records of communication, that was already provided for in that act.

If you wish to debate it would behoove you to inform yourself on the topic before attempting to do so. At least the basics of the topic. The gov't just has to follow the rules and laws, same as anybody in this country has to.

Centauri

"What would you say if one monitored call would prevent another Adam Lanza, James Holmes or Jared Loughner-- all AMERICANS from killing so many innocents"

Do you think that these 3 mentally ill and quiet people sent a bunch of emails or posted comments on social pages of what their intentions were? From what I know, they all acted alone.

Cho Seung-Hui gave some signals that he was going off the deep end to his school instructors.

http://abcnews.go.com/US/seung-h...
"Va. Tech Shooter Seung-Hui Cho's Mental Health Records Released"

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R...
"Virginia Tech shooter Cho Seung-Hui mailed a package with videos and pictures to NBC headquarters."

Centauri

I wanted to add that I was unable to find which medications Cho Seung-Hui was taking. Often, it is the medications that cause a person to go wacko. Maybe they are listed on some internet site.

Mystery_Cheese

The Republicans and Democrats are slowly stripping our privacy and our rights away, and all anyone wants to do is blame the other side. If Obama was so great, he would've struck down the Patriot Act as soon as he took office, like he said he would, but instead he increases its power, and therefore, the president's power. Anyone who doesn't think Obama and Bush are two peas in the same pod are clearly blind to everything.

Centauri

Republicans or Democrats, it doesn't matter. There are other choices. The news media corporations choose the candidates while excluding the best candidates for the people.

Mystery_Cheese

I agree. I voted for Paul, but Fox News did everything they could to try and tarnish him. A Republican-based news outlet bashing on a Republican candidate, simply because he expressed views that were truthful.

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