The PJ Tatler

Feinstein, Chambliss: Phone Records OK Because Government Didn't Listen In

The leaders of the Senate Intelligence Committee said today that information gleaned using the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act has helped protect the nation.

Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Vice Chairman Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) issued a joint statement in the wake of the furor over the NSA’s phone records program.

“A primary mission of the U.S. intelligence community is to detect and prevent terrorist attacks against the United States, and Congress works closely with the executive branch to ensure that the authorities necessary to keep our country safe are in place. One of these authorities is the ‘business records’ provision of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act under which the executive branch is authorized to collect ‘metadata’ concerning telephone calls, such as a telephone number or the length of a call. This law does not allow the government to listen in on the content of a phone call,” they said.

“The executive branch’s use of this authority has been briefed extensively to the Senate and House Intelligence and Judiciary Committees, and detailed information has been made available to all members of Congress prior to each congressional reauthorization of this law.”

Feinstein and Chambliss added that “ensuring security, however, must be consistent with respect for the constitutional rights of all Americans.”

“The alleged FISA Court order contained in the Guardian article does not give the government authority to listen in on anyone’s telephone call, nor does it provide the government with the content of any communication or the name of any subscriber. As with other FISA authorities, all information the government may receive under such an order would be subject to strict limitations. While our courts have consistently recognized that there is no reasonable expectation of privacy in this type of metadata information and thus no search warrant is required to obtain it, any subsequent effort to obtain the content of an American’s communications would require a specific order from the FISA Court,” they continued.

“The intelligence community has successfully used FISA authorities to identify terrorists and those with whom they communicate, and this intelligence has helped protect the nation. The threat from terrorism remains very real and these lawful intelligence activities must continue, with the careful oversight of the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government.”

Feinstein said on MSNBC this morning that the court order in question “is a routine — every three months — court reauthorization of a program that’s been in existence for a very long time.”

“This program has strong restrictions on it. The data are just phone numbers and trunk lines; there’s no content. It is put behind a wall. The only way it can be used is if there is strict scrutiny,” she said.

“Reasonable, articulable knowledge that this can connect to a terrorist attack, either under way or under planning or some conspiracy. And then the number can be looked at, based on the person who is the suspected terrorist. Then you can see what numbers that individual is calling.”