Congress on the FISA Order and Data Mining Stories

By Ritika Singh
Friday, June 7, 2013, 12:53 PM

The following roundup is a running list of pertinent statements and quotes from lawmakers in Congress on the FISA order calling for Verizon to turn over customers' phone records, as well as the news about the FBI and NSA's data mining practices. I will continue to update this post throughout the day:

House Intelligence Committee Chairman and Ranking Democrat, Mike Rogers (R-MI) and Dutch Ruppersberger (D-MD):

The collection described with yesterday's disclosure of a purported court order is consistent with the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) as passed by Congress, executed by the Executive Branch, and approved by a Federal Court. The FISA business records authorities are used to track foreign intelligence threats and international terrorists. It is important that the American people understand that this information does not include the content of anyone's conversations and does not reveal any individual or organization names. This important collection tool does not allow the government to eavesdrop on the phone calls of the American people. When these authorities are used, they are governed by court-approved processes and procedures. Moreover, the use of these authorities is reviewed and approved by federal judges every 90 days. Additionally, the Committee routinely reviews all FISA activities. Importantly, these activities have led to the successful detection and disruption of at least one terrorist plot on American soil, possibly saving American lives. Understanding the necessity of the public's trust in our intelligence activities and out of an abundance of caution, the Committee will review this matter to ensure that it too complies with the laws established to protect the American people.

Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman and Vice Chairman, Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Saxby Chambliss (R-GA):

A primary mission of the U.S. intelligence community is to detect and prevent terrorist attacks against the United States, and Congress works closely with the executive branch to ensure that the authorities necessary to keep our country safe are in place. One of these authorities is the ‘business records’ provision of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act under which the executive branch is authorized to collect ‘metadata’ concerning telephone calls, such as a telephone number or the length of a call. This law does not allow the government to listen in on the content of a phone call.

The executive branch’s use of this authority has been briefed extensively to the Senate and House Intelligence and Judiciary Committees, and detailed information has been made available to all members of Congress prior to each congressional reauthorization of this law.

Ensuring security, however, must be consistent with respect for the constitutional rights of all Americans. The alleged FISA Court order contained in the Guardian article does not give the government authority to listen in on anyone’s telephone call, nor does it provide the government with the content of any communication or the name of any subscriber. As with other FISA authorities, all information the government may receive under such an order would be subject to strict limitations. While our courts have consistently recognized that there is no reasonable expectation of privacy in this type of metadata information and thus no search warrant is required to obtain it, any subsequent effort to obtain the content of an American’s communications would require a specific order from the FISA Court.

The intelligence community has successfully used FISA authorities to identify terrorists and those with whom they communicate, and this intelligence has helped protect the nation. The threat from terrorism remains very real and these lawful intelligence activities must continue, with the careful oversight of the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government.

Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-IL):

For over a decade, we’ve debated how best to protect America from terrorism while preserving the most basic constitutional rights,” Durbin said. “Today’s revelation is disturbing, but it should not be surprising. I have tried to reform this provision of the Patriot Act for years, introducing legislation and offering amendments to ensure that secret demands for sensitive personal information on Americans limited only to those with some connection to individuals suspected of being involved in plots against our country. As I said when I offered my amendment in 2009,  ‘someday the cloak will be lifted and future generations will ask whether our actions today meet the test of a democratic society – transparency, accountability and fidelity to the rule of law and our Constitution.’ Today that cloak has been lifted and this important debate must begin again.

Senate Intelligence Committee member, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR):

The program Senators Feinstein and Chambliss publicly referred to today is one that I have been concerned about for years.  I am barred by Senate rules from commenting on some of the details at this time.  However, I believe that when law-abiding Americans call their friends, who they call, when they call, and where they call from is private information.  Collecting this data about every single phone call that every American makes every day would be a massive invasion of Americans’ privacy.

The administration has an obligation to give a substantive and timely response to the American people and I hope this story will force a real debate about the government’s domestic surveillance authorities. The American people have a right to know whether their government thinks that the sweeping, dragnet surveillance that has been alleged in this story is allowed under the law and whether it is actually being conducted.  Furthermore, they have a right to know whether the program that has been described is actually of value in preventing attacks.  Based on several years of oversight, I believe that its value and effectiveness remain unclear.

Senate Intelligence Committee member, Sen. Mark Udall (D-CO):

The government's collection of millions of Americans' phone records is the type of surveillance I have long said would shock the public if they knew about it. We must strike the right balance between keeping Americans safe and protecting constitutional rights. As the leaders of the Senate Intelligence Committee acknowledged this morning, members of the committee have been briefed on this program. As a member of this committee, I have long been concerned that there are 'secret' interpretations of the law that the American people deserve to know about. This is why I have fought to amend the PATRIOT Act — and raised public concerns at every juncture.

There are many ways to protect our nation, and one of the most important ways is to ensure the integrity of our constitutional liberties and that we have a transparent government that is accountable to the people it serves.

The American people need to know how the president interprets his authorities under the PATRIOT Act, and I expect the president to uphold his commitment to transparency in the State of the Union address and his recent national-security speech. Once the American people understand how this law has been interpreted, I am certain they will join me in pushing to immediately change it.

Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY):

The National Security Agency's seizure and surveillance of virtually all of Verizon's phone customers is an astounding assault on the Constitution. 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.

When Sen. Mike Lee and I offered an amendment that would attach Fourth Amendment protections to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act last year, it was defeated, and FISA was passed by an overwhelming majority of the Senate. At the time, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid remarked that FISA was "necessary to protect us from the evil in this world."

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. If the President and Congress would obey the Fourth Amendment we all swore to uphold, this new shocking revelation that the government is now spying on citizens' phone data en masse would never have happened.

Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT):

I am deeply disturbed by reports that the FISA Court issued an extremely broad order requiring Verizon turn over to the National Security Agency on a daily basis the company’s metadata on its customers’ calls.  Under this secret court order, millions of innocent Americans have been subject to government surveillance.”

The Fourth Amendment safeguards liberty by protecting against government abuse of power.  Overzealous law enforcement, even when well-intended, carries grave risks to Americans’ privacy and liberty.  Members of Congress cannot continue to grant broad discretion to government agents and not expect these types of troubling outcomes.  The abuses resulting from this court order illustrate the reasons why I have opposed, and continue to oppose, controversial provisions of the PATRIOT Act and the FISA Amendments Act that are inconsistent with the Fourth Amendment.

Sen. Al Franken (D-MN):

There's a balance to strike between protecting Americans' privacy and protecting our country's national security. I don't think we've struck that balance. I'm concerned about the lack of transparency of these programs. The American public can't be kept in the dark about the basic architecture of the programs designed to protect them.

We need to revisit how we address that balance. I agree with Senator Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) that the relevant significant FISA Court opinions should be made public to the degree possible, consistent with protecting national security.

Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR):

This type of secret bulk data collection is an outrageous breach of Americans' privacy. I have had significant concerns about the intelligence community over-collecting information about Americans’ telephone calls, emails, and other records and that is why I voted against the reauthorization of the PATRIOT Act provisions in 2011 and the reauthorization of the FISA Amendments Act just six months ago.”

This bulk data collection is being done under interpretations of the law that have been kept secret from the public.  Significant FISA court opinions that determine the scope of our laws should be declassified. Can the FBI or the NSA really claim that they need data scooped up on tens of millions of Americans?

Sen. Dean Heller (R-NV):

This is yet another example of government overreach that forces the question, ‘What sort of state are we living in?’ There is clearly a glaring difference between what the government is doing and what the American people think they are doing.

Of course, keeping American citizens safe is one of government’s most important responsibilities, but there is a fine line between protecting our nation and protecting our Fourth Amendment rights. Our government continues to come close to that line and in some areas may have even crossed it. It is exactly these types of concerning reports that spotlight the need for transparency and access to information that I have fought for in Congress and will continue to work towards.

The Wall Street Journal has more reactions from lawmakers:

“We should just calm down and understand this is not something that is brand new,” said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.), who said that the program has been in place for seven years and has “worked to prevent” terrorist attacks.

House Speaker John Boehner (R., Ohio) said he believed that Mr. Obama should reassure Americans with a public explanation and defense of the program. “There are public policy and civil liberties concerns among Americans today. I trust the president will explain (to the American people) why the administration considers this a critical tool,” Mr. Boehner said. “I’m fully confident both the House and Senate Intelligence Committees have provided oversight on this subject. It is important for the president to outline why these tools are critical.” Asked if he knew about this program, Mr. Boehner said, “I don’t discuss classified data….we’re still waiting for the rest of the details.”

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I., Vt.): “The United States should not be accumulating phone records on tens of millions of innocent Americans … While we must aggressively pursue international terrorists and all of those who would do us harm, we must do it in a way that protects the Constitution and the civil liberties which make us proud to be Americans.”

Rep. Louise M. Slaughter ( D., N.Y.): ”I am outraged by reports that the NSA is collecting the telephone records of millions of U.S. Verizon customers under a secret court order. I have consistently opposed reauthorizations of the USA Patriot Act and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) precisely because they grant overly-broad powers that could infringe on our civil liberties. We do not need to choose between security and civil liberties.”

The Washington Post and The Hill have more.