WASHINGTON – Lawmakers on both sides of the political aisle expressed grave concerns Wednesday over the federal government’s national security surveillance practices and indicated significant changes are in the offing when the law comes up for renewal in June 2015.
“You’ve already violated the law in my opinion,” Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), the ranking member of the House Judiciary Committee, told a host of Obama administration officials called to a hearing to explain some recently revealed spy agency investigatory procedures.
And Conyers wasn’t alone. Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), who in 2001 sponsored the Patriot Act, which strengthened surveillance efforts in wake of the 9/11 attacks, warned national security officials “you’re going to lose it entirely” unless some of the practices are reined in.
Regardless, administration officials endeavored to defend their practice. Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole told the panel that the Obama administration believes it has achieved “the right balance” in weighing the effort to protect the nation from outside threats with privacy concerns.
In an effort to support that position, Stephanie Douglas, an official with the FBI’s national security branch, asserted that the methods employed by American spy agencies resulted in a successful effort to track down Najibullah Zazi, an Afghan-American who subsequently acknowledged plans to bomb the New York City subway.
But lawmakers weren’t swayed, maintaining that data-gathering procedures were too broad and invasive.
“I think that very clearly this program has gone off the tracks legally,” said Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.).
The cause for congressional concern was recent revelations by Edward Snowden, a former contractor with the National Security Agency and onetime Central Intelligence Agency employee, who is responsible for leaking information about U.S. surveillance programs to the press.
Snowden, currently seeking asylum in Russia, exposed that under Section 215 of the Patriot Act the NSA was collecting telephone metadata, most of it involving American citizens, in an effort to thwart terrorist initiatives. He also offered details about another program, code-named PRISM, which monitored Internet communications for the same purpose.
All of these cloak-and-dagger efforts were approved by the U.S. Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which operates in secret and oversees operations.
Under 215, the NSA gathers telephone company records that contain numbers that were dialed, the date and time when the call was placed, and the length of the connection. The information passed on to intelligence agencies doesn’t contain the identity of those involved in the connection.