Congressional Skepticism About Surveillance Grows Post-NSA Leak

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.

The PRISM program collects content, like email messages, but only involves non-Americans who are thought to be located overseas.

Lawmakers fear both programs violate the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which guards against unreasonable search and seizure.

“I feel very uncomfortable about using aggregated metadata on hundreds of millions of Americans,” Conyers added. “This is unsustainable, it’s outrageous and must be stopped immediately.”

Kate Martin, director of the Center for National Security Studies, agreed, telling the committee that “the unprecedented, massive collection of information on Americans, the creation of secret databanks which are available for government analysis, queries, and data-mining by ever increasingly sophisticated computerized tools and the dissemination of both raw information and the results of such analysis or data-mining throughout the executive branch pose unprecedented threats to First and Fourth Amendment liberties.”

Martin also said government surveillance of American citizens “poses a significant and perhaps unprecedented challenge to our system of constitutional checks and balances.”

But Stewart Baker, an attorney and former NSA general counsel, argued that previous efforts to rein in intelligence-gathering efforts were at least partially responsible for the reason the U.S. was caught unaware on 9/11.

Baker expressed fear that new restraints on spy agency intelligence gathering “will leave us vulnerable to another security disaster.”

Several proposals to address concerns about surveillance practices are making the rounds in Capitol hallways, primarily dealing with efforts to make the FISA court at least somewhat more transparent.

Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) and Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) are offering legislation requiring the attorney general to declassify, when possible, FISA court opinions, which are currently classified, to provide lawmakers and privacy advocates with vital information on the panel’s legal interpretations. The proposal has attracted a number of co-sponsors and attracted companion legislation in the House.

Conyers, meanwhile, has introduced legislation aimed at limiting spy agency surveillance efforts while simultaneously requiring that FISA court opinions be made available to members of Congress and that a summary of the opinions be made public.

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