The National Security Agency on Saturday released a statement in answer to questions from a senator about whether it “has spied, or is … currently spying, on members of Congress or other American elected officials,” in which it did not deny collecting communications from legislators of the U.S. Congress to whom it says it is accountable.
In a letter dated January 3, Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont defined “spying” as “gathering metadata on calls made from official or personal phones, content from websites visited or emails sent, or collecting any other data from a third party not made available to the general public in the regular course of business”.
The agency has been at the center of political controversy since a former contractor, Edward Snowden, released thousands of documents on its activities to media outlets including the Guardian.
In its statement, which comes as the NSA gears up for a make-or-break legislative battle over the scope of its surveillance powers, the agency pointed to “privacy protections” which it says it keeps on all Americans' phone records.
The statement read: “NSA’s authorities to collect signals intelligence data include procedures that protect the privacy of U.S. persons. Such protections are built into and cut across the entire process. Members of Congress have the same privacy protections as all US persons. NSA is fully committed to transparency with Congress. Our interaction with Congress has been extensive both before and since the media disclosures began last June.
“We are reviewing Senator Sanders’s letter now, and we will continue to work to ensure that all members of Congress, including Senator Sanders, have information about NSA’s mission, authorities, and programs to fully inform the discharge of their duties.”
Soon after Sanders' letter was published, the director of national intelligence, James Clapper, announced that the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance (FISA) Court, the body which exists to provide government oversight of NSA surveillance activities, had renewed the domestic phone records collection order for another 90 days.
On Saturday, the New York Times published a letter from Robert Litt, in which the general counsel for the Office of National Intelligence denied allegations that Clapper lied to Congress in March, when questioned about NSA domestic surveillance.
Last month, two federal judges issued contradictory verdicts on whether such NSA surveillance was constitutional. Judge Richard Leon said it was not constitutional; Judge William Pauley said that it was.
As reported by Ryan J. Reilly in the Huffington Post:
The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court on Friday reauthorized the National Security Agency's phone surveillance program, the Director of National Intelligence said in a statement. The reauthorization order was not immediately available, but the administration is undertaking a declassification review, officials said.
Director of National Intelligence James Clapper pointed out that several federal judges have upheld the so-called metadata collection program. Separately, government lawyers on Friday asked the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia to overturn the one recent ruling that found the surveillance program unconstitutional.
Below, a statement on the FISA decision:
On several prior occasions, the Director of National Intelligence has declassified information about the telephony metadata collection program under the “business records” provision of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, 50 U.S.C. Section 1861 (also referred to as “Section 215”), in order to provide the public a more thorough and balanced understanding of the program. Consistent with his prior declassification decisions and in light of the significant and continuing public interest in the telephony metadata collection program, DNI Clapper has decided to declassify and disclose publicly that the government filed an application with the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court seeking renewal of the authority to collect telephony metadata in bulk, and that the court renewed that authority on January 3, 2014. It is the administration's view, consistent with the recent holdings of the United States District Courts for the Southern District of New York and Southern District of California, as well as the findings of 15 judges of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court on 36 separate occasions over the past seven years, that the telephony metadata collection program is lawful. The Department of Justice has filed an appeal of the lone contrary decision issued by the United States District Court for the District of Columbia. Nevertheless, the Intelligence Community continues to be open to modifications to this program that would provide additional privacy and civil liberty protections while still maintaining its operational benefits. To that end, the Administration is carefully evaluating the recommendation of the President's Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies regarding transitioning the program to one in which the data is held by telecommunications companies or a third party. In addition, the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board will complete a report on this program in the near future. The Administration will review all of these recommendations and consult with Congress and the Intelligence Community to determine if there are ways to achieve our counterterrorism mission in a manner that gives the American people greater confidence. The Administration is undertaking a declassification review of this most recent court order.