photo by WilliamBanzaix
WASHINGTON—Republican and Democrat lawmakers expressed renewed skepticism Wednesday about the scope of the government’s surveillance operations and threatened to revoke authority for one of the programs recently disclosed by a former National Security Agency contractor that collects telephone records on tens of millions of Americans.
“This is unsustainable, outrageous and must be stopped immediately.”
Noting mounting concerns since details about the telephone records program and a separate operation that collects the communications of non-U.S. citizens abroad were disclosed last month, Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., said there “are not enough votes to renew” the authority, at least for the vast phone records collection effort.
“This program has gone off the tracks,” Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., said, “and it needs to be reined in.”
But Justice Department and NSA officials asserted that the programs were the subject of strict oversight by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, Congress and agency officials.
“This is not done in some rogue manner,” Deputy Attorney General James Cole told the panel. “We know of no one who has abused this in a way that would have caused discipline.”
Though former NSA contractor Edward Snowden disclosed the existence of the operations without authorization prompting criminal charges related to espionage, Deputy NSA Director Chris Inglis said the government has no evidence that he “abused the data.”
The strong questioning from lawmakers comes more than a month after Snowden’s disclosures triggered a heated debate over the intersection of the government’s surveillance authority and personal privacy rights.
Snowden has taken refuge in the transit area of a Moscow airport since fleeing Hong Kong last month to avoid extradition to the U.S.
Rep. Spencer Bachus, R-Ala., said that while he was “satisfied” that government officials overseeing the programs were acting in good faith, he said there was “concern that this could evolve into something quite different.”
“How do we keep this from evolving into an unchecked weapon that can be used against people’s rights?”
Cole said the phone record collection program contained multiple safeguards against inappropriate breaches of privacy. Echoing defenses offered by other administration officials, he said collection did not involve the content of phone calls, nor did it include the names of the parties to the calls.
“You can’t just wander through these records,” he said.
Responding to repeated questions about the vast nature of the collection effort, Cole said at one point: “If you are looking for the needle in a haystack, you have to have the haystack.”