Congress Up in Arms Over NSA Surveillance

     WASHINGTON (CN) – Congressmen from both sides of the aisle took aim at the Obama administration over sweeping domestic surveillance programs brought to light last month by Edward Snowden.
     Echoing testimony FBI Director Robert Mueller gave before the committee on June 13, officials with the National Security Agency and Justice Department tried Wednesday to minimize the impact of leaked programs.
     NSA Deputy Director John Inglis and James Cole, second in command of the U.S. Justice Department, described these programs as merely methods of collecting metadata, such as phone numbers and the times of telephone calls, and said the NSA did not listen in on any content,
     House Judiciary Committee members were not skittish with the witnesses, peppering them with questions about to whether the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act authorizes the government to collect more than just metadata.
     “This metadata problem for me has gotten quite far out of hand, even given the seriousness of the problems that surround it and created its need,” Rep. John Conyers Jr., D-Mich., said.
     Cole defended the FISA-authorized metadata collection program, citing the U.S. Supreme Court case Smith v. Maryland where the high court ruled that Americans do not have a reasonable expectation of privacy when it comes to their phone calls.
     “Do I have a reasonable expectation of privacy in anything I share?” Rep. Blake Farenthold, R-Texas, asked. “In any of my Google searches? The email I send? Do I have a reasonable expectation of privacy in anything other than a letter I write and hand to my wife in a skiff?”
     Cole replied, “Those are all dependent on the facts of the circumstances of the documents we’re talking about.”
     Cole, Inglis, National Intelligence officer Robert Litt and FBI official Stephanie Douglas each tried to assure the committee that the surveillance programs are as innocent as they are useful.
     Though the only thing standing between stacks of phone numbers and the content of those calls is the 11-judge Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which authorizes nearly 99 percent of the applications before it, Litt assured Congress that the court is “not a rubber stamp.”
     Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., was not swayed. “The fact that a secret court unaccountable to the public knowledge to what it’s doing, for practical purposes unaccountable to the Supreme Court, may join you in misusing or abusing the statute is no comfort whatsoever,” Nadler said.
     Even Patriot Act author Jim Sensensbrenner was on the attack, slamming the administration for abusing section 215 of the law by using it to seize business records. The Wisconsin Republican warned that the section is set to expire in 2015 and will if the administration won’t stop abusing it.
     Cole and Inglis said the metadata surveillance program has existed over multiple administrations dating back “eight or nine years,” punctuated with classified updates that the NSA gave to Congress.
     “If this is an innocent pastime we do to just keep busy or some other reason, why on earth would we be just collecting just the numbers of everyone in the United States of America for the past six years?” Conyers asked.
     Douglas responded that the numbers associated with certain phone calls are cross-checked with numbers known to be connected with terrorists.
     “You’ve already violated the law as far as I’m concerned,” Conyers said. “I feel very uncomfortable about using aggregated metadata on hundreds of millions of Americans. Everybody, including every member of Congress and every citizen who has a phone in the United States of America. This is unsustainable, outrageous and must be stopped immediately.”
     Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., asked Litt about the secrecy involved with the program that stockpiles millions of phone numbers that administration officials pledged are not used unless proven to be relevant to active terrorism investigation.
     “Do you think a program of this magnitude could be kept secret indefinitely from the American people,” Goodlatte asked.
     “Well, we tried,” said Litt, sparking laughter in the gallery.
     The secret metadata collection program became national news when The Guardian reported information on the program leaked to it by Snowden, who promptly left the country and was deemed a spy by the Obama administration.
     “Snowden, you know I don’t like him at all, but we would have never known about any of this if he hadn’t told us,” Texas Republican Ted Poe said.
     The second panel of witnesses sworn in during the four-hour hearing included attorneys and civil liberties groups eager to bash the federal government’s disregard for privacy rights in the name of national security.
     “That the NSA is engaged in this type of unconstitutional surveillance is a result in defects in [FISA] itself and in the current oversight system,” said Jameel Jaffer of the ACLU. “FISA affords the government sweeping power to monitor the communications of innocent people. Excessive secrecy has made Congressional oversight difficult and public oversight impossible. Intelligence officials have repeatedly misled the public.”
     Though both Republicans and Democrats pounced on the administration over perceived FISA abuse, neither party was able to offer a solution.
     Obama has repeatedly defended the FISC as an effective means to prevent unauthorized content gathering.

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