Growing Number Of Senators Demand Answers About NSA Surveillance

from the they're-waking-up dept

For the past few years, it was just a very small group of Senators who seemed even remotely concerned about the NSA’s broad surveillance and reinterpretation of the Patriot Act and FISA Amendment’s Act. Senators Ron Wyden and Mark Udall have been talking about it for a while. Senator Jeff Merkley has been concerned about the secret interpretation. Every so often Senators Patrick Leahy and Rand Paul have expressed some concern. But that had been about it. However, with all of the leaks about the NSA’s actual programs, more in the Senate appear to be waking up to the issue. A bipartisan group of 26 Senators, led by Wyden, have sent a very strongly worded letter to Director of National Intelligence James Clapper concerning the programs and his claims to Congress.

In our view, the bulk collection and aggregation of Americans’ phone records has a significant impact on Americans’ privacy that exceeds the issues considered by the Supreme Court in Smith v. Maryland. That decision was based on the technology of the rotary-dial era and did not address the type of ongoing, broad surveillance of phone records that the government is now conducting. These records can reveal personal relationships, family medical issues, political and religious affiliations, and a variety of other private personal information. This is particularly true if these records are collected in a manner that includes cell phone locational data, effectively turning Americans’ cell phones into tracking devices. We are concerned that officials have told the press that the collection of this location data is currently authorized.

Furthermore, we are troubled by the possibility of this bulk collection authority being applied to other categories of records. The PATRIOT Act’s business records authority is very broad in its scope. It can be used to collect information on credit card purchases, pharmacy records, library records, firearm sales records, financial information, and a range of other sensitive subjects. And the bulk collection authority could potentially be used to supersede bans on maintaining gun owner databases, or laws protecting the privacy of medical records, financial records, and records of book and movie purchases. These other types of bulk collection could clearly have a significant impact on Americans’ privacy and liberties as well.

The use of “gun owner databases” is interesting, as it seems like a pretty clear attempt to attract some attention from a group of Republicans who have been outspoken against gun owner databases held by local governments, but who have been strongly in favor of the NSA surveillance programs.

The letter also calls out a few clearly misleading statements from defenders of the program:

Finally, we are concerned that by depending on secret interpretations of the PATRIOT Act that differed from an intuitive reading of the statute, this program essentially relied for years on a secret body of law. Statements from senior officials that the PATRIOT Act authority is “analogous to a grand jury subpoena” and that the NSA “[doesn’t] hold data on US citizens” had the effect of misleading the public about how the law was being interpreted and implemented. This prevented our constituents from evaluating the decisions that their government was making, and will unfortunately undermine trust in government more broadly. The debate that the President has now welcomed is an important first step toward restoring that trust.

To drive this point home, the letter asks Clapper to answer a series of direct questions:

  • How long has the NSA used Patriot Act authorities to engage in bulk collection of Americans’ records? Was this collection underway when the law was reauthorized in 2006?
  • Has the NSA used USA Patriot Act authorities to conduct bulk collection of any other types of records pertaining to Americans, beyond phone records?
  • Has the NSA collected or made any plans to collect Americans’ cell-site location data in bulk?
  • Have there been any violations of the court orders permitting this bulk collection, or of the rules governing access to these records? If so, please describe these violations.
  • Please identify any specific examples of instances in which intelligence gained by reviewing phone records obtained through Section 215 bulk collection proved useful in thwarting a particular terrorist plot.
  • Please provide specific examples of instances in which useful intelligence was gained by reviewing phone records that could not have been obtained without the bulk collection authority, if such examples exist.
  • Please describe the employment status of all persons with conceivable access to this data, including IT professionals, and detail whether they are federal employees, civilian or military, or contractors.

The twenty six senators who signed are:

Ron Wyden (Oregon), Mark Udall (Colorado), Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), Patrick Leahy (Vermont), Mark Kirk (Illinois), Dick Durbin (Illinois), Tom Udall (New Mexico), Brian Schatz (Hawaii), Jon Tester (Montana), Jeanne Shaheen (New Hampshire), Dean Heller (Nevada),Mark Begich (Alaska), Bernie Sanders (Vermont), Patty Murray (Washington), Jeff Merkley (Oregon), Mazie Hirono (Hawaii), Al Franken (Minnesota), Tom Harkin (Iowa), Chris Coons (Delaware), Maria Cantwell (Washington), Richard Blumenthal (Connecticut), Max Baucus (Montana), Elizabeth Warren (Massachusetts), Martin Heinrich (New Mexico), Tammy Baldwin (Wisconsin) and Mike Lee (Utah).

A bit surprised that Rand Paul isn’t on the list. Similarly, disappointed, but tragically not surprised, that neither of my own Senators are on the list. Considering that Dianne Feinstein has been the leading defender of the program, despite the fact that it’s a disaster for the tech industry in her own home state, I wouldn’t have expected her to be on this list, but it still makes it no less a farce that she’s siding with the government against both the public and her own state’s best interests.

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Comments on “Growing Number Of Senators Demand Answers About NSA Surveillance”

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47 Comments
Anonymous Coward says:

this number is only growing because more and more people are finally realising what the government is doing, how long it has been doing it and what it actually means as far as each individuals privacy and freedom is concerned. if there is too much playing down of this, the people could easily change their voting minds when the time comes. everyone knows what liars politicians are but to go out and out to prosecute someone for doing something that was going to have guaranteed protection when it happened is hard to push to one side!!

Anonymous Coward says:

What kind of statement did her office put out?

Considering that Dianne Feinstein has been the leading defender of the program ? I wouldn’t have expected her to be on this list

What kind of statement did her office put out?when you called to ask why she hasn’t signed the letter yet?

Sometimes smart people forget the most basic tactics: It might be better not to understand that Ms Feinstein is ?the leading defender of the program? Instead, let her explain. You just go, ?Huh? Why didn’t you sign the letter, Senator?? Let her explain herself.

Perhaps she just hasn’t gotten around to signing the letter yet. She’s a very busy woman, you know.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: What kind of statement did her office put out?

This is the response I got a few days back

Thanks for posting that.

I notice that Ms Feinstein avers:

I am doing my level best to get more information declassified.

Yeah, but she didn’t sign this letter we’re talking about. How come? Is not signing this letter yet?is that part of ?her level best???

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: What kind of statement did her office put out?

The NSA must like having people like this as “Chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee”…

Also, just because a piece of information is on a bill doesn’t mean the information is public or that I allow the government to collect it. Using the logic from the letter, your credit card bill, bank statements, shipping documents, etc should all be fair game for the government to collect. That would be pretty messed up if the government knew who I’m paying and what I was billed for…

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: What kind of statement did her office put out?

i am still under the impression that they are capturing Most if not ALL internet traffic that travels thru the US, storing it in a data center, and going thru it later.

that is what the original whistle blower said in 2003….that they installed glass prisms on the fiber optic internet cables specifically to gather all internet traffic.

and…SSL is broke – if you can listen to the beginning of a shopping session.

So, when you buy something, that data gets sent via SSL or VPN multiple times until it finally reaches Visa…which probably has a data feed to the NSA to look for suspicious buying patterns.

Phoenix84 (profile) says:

I think it’s about time I write another letter to my disgrace of a senator, Feinstein, and let her know my feelings on this.
Part of me wants to know what canned response letter I’ll receive back. However speaking my opinion will make me feel a little better. Even if it serves no purpose, at least it’s better than most of the people in this country that won’t do anything.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Nor do I see senators from my state and it isn’t Ohio.

Maybe Senator Wyden just forgot to ask your guys.

Did you think of that? I’m not saying it was intentional?he didn’t mean to slight them?but perhaps he just got a little bit rushed there, and it slipped his mind? Could have happened that way. Could have.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Perhaps...

Wyden and Udall would have likely have appropriate answers for how they opposed these sorts of programs but were unable to stop them. They would like fair quite well and even welcome such a line of questioning. The others, however, would have a much more difficult time explaining their actions.

Anonymous Coward says:

I wonder if Clapper will have the audacity to lie again on this response?

Maybe Senator Wyden just forgot to ask your guys.

I expect my representatives to obey the laws and to actually represent the Declaration of Independence as well as the Constitution. I also expect them to know what is in a law before voting for it. So far, whether they were asked or not, I see it as a major failing we are even having this discussion.

I can not for a moment think that they weren’t asked when there were 26 senators who knew. I don’t think they blew a cloud of smoke to get the message out it was coming.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

I don’t think they blew a cloud of smoke to get the message out it was coming.

This ?everyone knew? thesis is ?to me? among the more disturbing aspects.

When DNI Clapper, and others, assured the public, both in sworn testimony, and in less formal settings, that the NSA was not collecting domestic intelligence, I was inclined to take them at their word. Despite some reason to suspect. Despite the rumors.

Then it comes out that DNI Clapper intentionally misstated material facts under oath.

And some people want to argue, ?Well, you knew! You knew all along that this was going on. You knew .? Those people point to the rumors, and say that those rumors were a basis to know. ? Well, excuse me. ? No, I didn’t know that the DNI was intentionally misstating material facts under oath. No, I didn’t know that all along.

Now we’re being assured that it’s only a little bit of domestic intelligence gathering. Just a little bit. Yes, it’s collection on millions of Americans. But it’s not really a big deal?just metadata. And now we’re being assured that the NSA is not gathering call content. Not gathering email content. But even though we’re being assured of this, in public, sworn testimony, the rumors are going around that there’s still a lot more.

What happens next? In a month, or a year, or two, or three, are we going to learn about more material facts misstated under oath?? And then all these people are going to point to the rumors again, and say, ?You knew! You knoew all along that this was happening. You knew.?

Anonymous Coward says:

Every representative should be upset

Finally, we are concerned that by depending on secret interpretations of the PATRIOT Act that differed from an intuitive reading of the statute, this program…

Congress is absolutely powerless if the executive is allowed to interpret statutes in a way that differs from the intuitive reading.

FM Hilton (profile) says:

Writing those in charge

About 5 years ago I wrote both of my Senators: Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe about the Patriot Act and it’s potential for abuse by the government.

Essentially the same message came back from both of them:

“We’re keeping close tabs on the situation, but you don’t need to worry-Congress is in charge.”

I didn’t believe them now, and I don’t believe these Senators will get any better answers now from anyone at the NSA.

Let’s not be naive: Congress got caught snoozing at the wheel and now they’re waking up to the fact that they were supposed to know what they’re doing.

Too bad more Congress critters didn’t seem to care that much as long as they were not bothered by bad press.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Writing those in charge

I think it’s safe to say that some in Congress knew at least some of what is going on. Some probably found some details and decided not to follow down the rabbit hole because they figured 1. they would be targeted politically if they did and 2. if it ever got out and blew up like it has they could always claim that they didn’t know. A few like Wyden and Udall WANTED to get it out in the open but couldn’t because they knew they were the only advocates in place and if they tried to hard and made themselves targets, there would be no advocates left to stand against this. So they hinted and pushed lightly to try to gain support for their position. Now, that this has been made public, they can push much harder as there is much more support behind them and much more evidence to support these claims.

Uriel-238 (profile) says:

Same as the old boss

This illustrates, I think, a hallmark of the political era that we’re in, where our representatives have to focus so much more on campaigning than governing. No matter who we rotate into office, they’re just not going to be able to be effective and serve their constituency at the same time.

Either we’re going to have to endure decades more of this, or we’re going to have to implement rapid, dynamic change.

And it’s change that the powers-that-be are going to fiercely resist.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

Congress created the NSA

Not so.

As Wikipedia explains, the NSA was created by executive order:

The creation of NSA was authorized in a letter written by President Harry S. Truman in June 1952. The agency was formally established through a revision of National Security Council Intelligence Directive (NSCID) 9 on October 24, 1952, and officially came into existence on November 4, 1952.

One of the points specifically addressed in 1975, by Senate Resolution 21 in the 94th Congress, which established the Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Committees (Frank Church (Idaho), Chairman); was:

(8) The need for specific legislative authority to govern the operations of any intelligence agencies of the Federal Government now existing without that explicit statutory authority, including but not limited to agencies such as the Defense Intelligence Agency and the National Security Agency.

Anonymous Coward says:

Captain Obvious Ammendment

Perhaps a new amendment is in order. One that not only declares secret interpretations and secret laws invalid, non binding, automatically unconstitutional. Hell, make it cover every possible permutation to leave not one jot of a loophole. Since clearly there needs to be a rule for the bleeding obvious of how any remotely resembling a legitimate legal system works in the first place!

Anonymous Coward says:

if there are any answers given at all, it will be a miracle, but i bet that they will be worded in a very similar way to those given by Holder when replying to Wyden’s questions early in the year. in other words, there will be all sorts of tap dancing, no clear responses and regardless of what, if any guarantees that may be given, it will be ‘business as usual’ for the security/law enforcement agencies and the people will continue to be completely screwed!

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