After a closed-door briefing of the House of Representatives, lawmakers call for a review of the Patriot Act
- guardian.co.uk, Tuesday 11 June 2013 20.45 EDT
Xavier Becerra, a senior Democrat, said there hadn’t been enough oversight of government surveillance programmes. Photograph: Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP
Anger was mounting in Congress on Tuesday night as politicians, briefed for the first time after revelations about the government’s surveillance dragnet, vowed to rein in a system that one said amounted to “spying on Americans”.
Intelligence chiefs and FBI officials had hoped that the closed-door briefing with a full meeting of the House of Representatives would help reassure members about the widespread collection of US phone records revealed by the Guardian.
But senior figures from both parties emerged from the meeting alarmed at the extent of a surveillance program that many claimed never to have heard of until whistleblower Edward Snowden leaked a series of top-secret documents.
The congressional fury came at the end of a day of fast-moving developments.
• In a lawsuit filed in New York, the American Civil Liberties Union accused the US government of a process that was “akin to snatching every American’s address book”.
• On Capitol Hill, a group of US senators introduced a bill aimed at forcing the US federal government to disclose the opinions of a secretive surveillance court that determines the scope of the eavesdropping on Americans’ phone records and internet communications.
• A leading member of the Senate intelligence committee, Ron Wyden, came close to saying that James Clapper, the US director of national intelligence, misled him on the scope of government surveillance during a March hearing. Clapper admitted earlier this week that he gave the “least untruthful” answer possible to a question by Wyden.
• Chuck Hagel, the defense secretary, said he ordered a wide-ranging review of the Defense Department’s reliance on private contractors. Snowden had top-security clearance for his work at Booz Allen Hamilton, an NSA contractor. Booz Allen issued a statement on Tuesday saying that Snowden had been fired for “violations of the firm’s code of ethics”.
• In Brussels, the European commission’s vice-president, Viviane Reding, sent a letter demanding answers to seven detailed questions to the US attorney general, Eric Holder, about Prism and other American data snooping efforts.
• Snowden was at an undisclosed location after he checked out of a Hong Kong hotel on Monday. The director of Human Rights Watch, Peter Bouckaert, said Snowden should not consider himself safe in the Chinese province.
Newspapers in Hong Kong feature the NSA leaker Edward Snowden. Photograph: Bobby Yip/Reuters
After the congressional briefing, Xavier Becerra, leader of the House minority caucus, said there had not been enough oversight of government surveillance programs. “We are now glimpsing the damage,” he said, referring to failures to repeal the Patriot Act sooner. “It was an extraordinary measure for an extraordinary time but it shouldn’t have been extended.”
Others said the White House and intelligence committee leaders had been misleading when they claimed all members of Congress were briefed about the mass swoop of telephone records.
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Congress briefed on US surveillance programs
Published: June 11, 2013
This Sept. 19, 2007, photo shows the National Security Agency building at Fort Meade, Md. When the federal government went looking for phone numbers tied to terrorists, it grabbed the records of just about everyone in America.
WASHINGTON — Dogged by fear and confusion about sweeping spy programs, intelligence officials sought to convince House lawmakers in an unusual briefing Tuesday that the government’s years-long collection of phone records and Internet usage is necessary for protecting Americans – and does not trample on their privacy rights.
But the country’s main civil liberties organization wasn’t buying it, filing the most significant lawsuit against the massive phone record collection program so far. The American Civil Liberties Union and its New York chapter sued the federal government Tuesday in New York, asking a court to demand that the Obama administration end the program and purge the records it has collected.
The ACLU is claiming standing as a customer of Verizon, which was identified last week as the phone company the government had ordered to turn over daily records of calls made by all its customers.
The parade of FBI and intelligence officials who briefed the entire House on Tuesday was the latest attempt to soothe outrage over National Security Agency programs which collect billions of Americans’ phone and Internet records. Since they were revealed last week, the programs have spurred distrust in the Obama administration from across the globe.
Several key lawmakers, including House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, refocused the furor Tuesday on the elusive 29-year-old former intelligence contractor who is claiming responsibility for revealing the surveillance programs to two newspapers. Boehner joined others in calling Edward Snowden a “traitor.”
But attempts to defend the NSA systems by a leading Republican senator who supports them highlighted how confusingly intricate the programs are – even to the lawmakers who follow the issue closely.
Explaining the programs to reporters, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a member of the Senate Armed Services and Judiciary committees, initially described how the NSA uses pattern analysis of millions of phone calls from the United States, even if those numbers have no known connection to terrorism. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper has vigorously maintained that there are strict limits on the programs to prevent intruding on Americans’ privacy, and senior officials quickly denied Graham’s description.
Graham later said he misspoke and that Clapper was right: The phone records are only accessed if there is a known connection to terrorism.
House lawmakers had more questions and, in many cases, more concerns about the level of surveillance by U.S. intelligence agencies Tuesday after FBI, Justice and other intelligence officials briefed them on the two NSA programs.
“Really it’s a debate between public safety, how far we go with public safety and protecting us from terrorist attacks versus how far we go on the other side,” said Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger of Maryland, top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee. “Congress needs to debate this issue.”
He said his panel and the Judiciary Committee would examine what has happened and see whether there are recommendations for the future.
Rep. Brad Sherman, D-Calif., like many members, said he was unaware of the scope of the data collection.
“I did not know 1 billion records a day were coming under the control of the federal executive branch,” Sherman said.
Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., said there was a lot of heated discussion and that, “Congress didn’t feel like they were informed.”
Cohen conceded many lawmakers had failed to attend classified briefings in previous years where they could have learned more. “I think Congress has really found itself a little bit asleep at the wheel,” he said.
One of the Senate’s staunchest critics of the surveillance programs put Clapper in the crosshairs, accusing him of not being truthful in March when he asked during a Senate hearing whether the NSA collects any data on millions of Americans. Clapper said it did not. Officials generally do not discuss classified information in public settings, reserving discussion on top-secret programs for closed sessions with lawmakers where they will not be revealed to adversaries.
Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., said he had been dissatisfied with the NSA’s answers to his questions and had given Clapper a day’s advance notice prior to the hearing to prepare an answer. Not fully believing Clapper’s public denial of the program, Wyden said he asked Clapper privately afterward whether he wanted to stick with a firm `no’ to the question.
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Liberal Lawers vs Liberal Govt? A.C.L.U. Files Lawsuit Seeking to Stop the Collection of Domestic Phone Logs
WASHINGTON (NYT) — The American Civil Liberties Union sued the Obama administration on Tuesday over its “dragnet” collection of logs of domestic phone calls, contending that the once-secret program — whose existence was exposed last week by a former National Security Agency contractor — is illegal and asking a judge to stop it and order the records purged.
The lawsuit could set up an eventual Supreme Court test. It could also focus attention on this disclosure amid the larger heap of top secret surveillance matters revealed by Edward J. Snowden, the former N.S.A. contractor who came forward Sunday to say he was their source.
The program “gives the government a comprehensive record of our associations and public movements, revealing a wealth of detail about our familial, political, professional, religious and intimate associations,” the complaint says, adding that it “is likely to have a chilling effect on whistle-blowers and others who would otherwise contact” the A.C.L.U. for legal assistance.
The Justice Department declined to comment on the suit.
In other lawsuits against national security policies, the government has often persuaded courts to dismiss them without ruling on the merits by arguing that litigation would reveal state secrets or that the plaintiffs could not prove they were personally affected and so lacked standing in court.
This case may be different. The government has now declassified the existence of the program. And the A.C.L.U. is a customer of Verizon Business Network Services — the recipient of a leaked secret court order for all its domestic calling records — which it says gives it standing.
The call logging program keeps a record of “metadata” from domestic phone calls, including which numbers were dialed and received, from which location, and the time and duration.
The effort began as part of the Bush administration’s post-Sept. 11 programs of surveillance without court approval, which has continued since 2006 with the blessing of a national security court. The court has secretly ruled that bulk surveillance is authorized by a section of the Patriot Act that allows the F.B.I. to obtain “business records” relevant to a counterterrorism investigation.
Congress never openly voted to authorize the collection of logs of hundreds of millions of domestic calls, but some lawmakers were secretly briefed. Some members of Congress have backed the program as a useful counterterrorism tool; others have denounced it.
“The administration claims authority to sift through details of our private lives because the Patriot Act says that it can,” Representative F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., Republican of Wisconsin, wrote in a letter to Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. “I disagree. I authored the Patriot Act, and this is an abuse of that law.”
Over the weekend, James R. Clapper Jr., the director of national intelligence, said that officials may access the database only if they can meet a legal justification — “reasonable suspicion, based on specific facts, that the particular basis for the query is associated with a foreign terrorist organization.” Queries are audited under the oversight of the national security court.
Timothy Edgar, a former civil liberties official on intelligence matters in the Bush and Obama administrations who worked on building safeguards into the phone log program, said the notion underlying the limits was that people’s privacy is not invaded by having their records collected, but only when a human examines them.
“When you have important reasons why that collection needs to take place on a scale that is much larger than case-by-case or individual obtaining of records,” he said, “then one of the ways you try to deal with the privacy issue is you think carefully about having a set of safeguards that basically say, ‘O.K., yes, this has major privacy implications, but what can we do on the back end to address those?’ ”
Still, privacy advocates say the existence of the database will erode the sense of living in a free society: whenever Americans pick up a phone, they now face the consideration of whether they want the record of that call to go into the government’s files.
Moreover, while use of the database is now limited to terrorism, history has shown that new government powers granted for one purpose often end up applied to others. An expanded search warrant authority justified by the Sept. 11 attacks, for example, was used far more often in routine investigations like suspected drug, fraud and tax offenses.
Executive branch officials and lawmakers who support the program have hinted that some terrorist plots have been foiled by using the database. In private conversations, they have also explained that investigators start with a phone number linked to terrorism, and scrutinize the ring of people who have called that number — and other people who in turn called those — in an effort to identify co-conspirators.
Still, that analysis may generally be performed without a wholesale sweep of call records, since investigators can instead use subpoenas to obtain relevant logs from telephone companies. Senators Ron Wyden of Oregon and Mark Udall of Colorado, two Democrats who have examined it in classified Senate Intelligence Committee hearings, have claimed that the evidence is thin that the program provided uniquely available intelligence.
But supporters privately say the database’s existence is about more than convenience and speed. They say it can also help in searching for networks of terrorists who are taking steps to shield their communications from detection by using different phones to call one another. If calls from a different number are being made from the same location as calls by the number that was already known to be suspicious, having the entire database may be helpful in a way that subpoenas for specific numbers cannot match.
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