A bipartisan group of congressional lawmakers, including several conservative Republicans, are asking agencies in the Obama administration for more information about this week’s revelations that the government is tracking the telephone records of tens of millions of Americans.
“We are concerned that the FBI and NSA are using a statute written primarily to target foreign intelligence to sweep up volumes of data about Americans’ everyday telephone calls,” states the letter signed by 21 lawmakers and sent to Robert Mueller, director of the FBI, and Keith Alexander, the head of the National Security Agency. “Such an intentionally general and suspicionless collection of citizen’s private data is troubling, to say the least.”
The letter highlights the congressional divide over a secret program that gathered records of the telephone numbers, time and duration of millions of calls made inside the U.S. It is a division that is not dictated by political parties.
Rep. Justin Amash, R-Mich., said the revelations, made this week in a leak, should “shock anyone who has even a passing interest in privacy, civil liberties, or the Constitution.” Rep. Steve Pearce, R- N.M., said the seizure of the phone records of millions of Americans is a “gross misuse and abuse” of the PATRIOT Act. The law was passed after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks to give the government broad new powers in fighting terrorism.
“That the very act designed to protect our nation’s way of life is being used to violate the constitutional rights of all Americans is reprehensible,” Pearce said. “The federal government must be held accountable for its actions.”
But senators from both parties had a more muted response to the practice after a Thursday Senate briefing with top officials from the FBI and NSA.
“It is lawful,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., the chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee. “The records can only be accessed under heightened standards … and it’s to ferret this out before it happens. It’s called protecting America.”
Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., the top Republican on the Intelligence Committee, also stood up for the program, saying the agencies do not collect recordings of the content of the calls.
“This is nothing new,” Chambliss said. “This has been going on for seven years … to my knowledge, there has not been any citizen who has registered a complaint. It has proved meritorious because we have gathered significant information on bad guys, but only on bad guys, over the years.”
Not every Senator was impressed with giving this much power and discretion to a federal executive branch that currently is embroiled in numerous scandals centering on the abuse of private information.
“After revelations that the Internal Revenue Service targeted political dissidents and the Department of Justice seized reporters’ phone records, it would appear that this administration has now sunk to a new low,” said Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky. “The Bill of Rights was designed to protect us from evil, too, particularly that which always correlates with concentrated government power, and particularly executive power.”
In addition to collecting phone records through Verizon, the federal government also has spent years gathering information secretly on Internet usage through Google and other providers. President Barack Obama on Friday backed the surveillance activities in his first public remarks since information on the secret programs was leaked this week.
In a 15-minute defense, Obama said, “nobody is listening to your telephone calls.” He argued that striking the balance between national security interests and individual privacy rights requires “some tradeoffs” and “modest encroachments.” Obama stated that he assessed the programs and concluded that they help prevent terrorist attacks.
“You can’t have 100 percent security and also then have 100 percent privacy and zero inconvenience,” Obama said. “We’re going to have to make some choices as a society.”
The president stated numerous times that congressional lawmakers from both parties authorized the surveillance programs and have been consistently briefed on their progress.
“It’s important to understand that your duly elected representatives have been consistently informed on exactly what we’re doing,” Obama said. “Now, the programs … are secret in the sense that they’re classified. But they’re not secret in the sense that when it comes to telephone calls, every member of Congress has been briefed on this program.”
But some lawmakers doubt that every member of Congress has been briefed, suggesting that just congressional leaders and members of key intelligence committees are being kept informed.
“While some members of Congress were made aware of and approved of this secret, blanket, domestic surveillance program, I was never briefed on it and never approved it,” said Rep. Tim Huelskamp, R-Kan. “The use of this indiscriminate practice of seizing the private telephone records of U.S. citizens on U.S. soil without probable cause infringes upon the fundamental constitutional rights of tens of millions of unsuspecting, law-abiding Americans.”
Like other lawmakers, Huelskamp said the secret sweep of telephone records takes on a new meaning in the aftermath of the IRS targeting conservative groups and the Justice Department’s secret collection of journalists’ phone records. Huelskamp said it “raises even more distrust and fundamental concern about President Obama’s willingness to trample on the privacy rights of American citizens.”
During the 2008 presidential election, then candidate Obama got a lot of campaign mileage out of criticizing the spying efforts under then President George W. Bush. Republicans accused Obama of distorting the Bush Administration’s activities while civil liberty advocates expected Obama to crack down on any surveillance activities if he was elected. Obama acknowledge on Friday that he came into office with “a healthy skepticism about these programs.” But five years later it seems that the programs have been approved and expanded under his watch.
Now groups like the American Civil Liberties Union are finding themselves in an awkward place: opposing Obama.
“The secrecy surrounding the government’s extraordinary surveillance powers has stymied our system of checks and balances,” said Laura Murphy, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Washington Legislative Office. “Congress must initiate an investigation to fully uncover the scope of these powers and their constraints, and it must enact reforms that protect Americans’ right to privacy and that enable effective public oversight of our government.”
This furor did not surprise some in Washington who knew that it was just a matter of time before the secrets were exposed. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., warned back in 2011: “When the American people find out how their government has secretly interpreted the Patriot Act, they will be stunned and they will be angry.”
With the leaks, the debate over how to strike a balance between privacy rights and national security will now take an even more central place in the public square.