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.