The defenders of the NSA’s surveillance programs have insisted since last week that the programs don’t threaten the privacy of US citizens on the Internet or on the phone, and have strict Congressional oversight. That must mean that a briefing on the program would satisfy most members of the House and reassure Americans that George Orwell’s worst nightmares hadn’t come to pass. Unfortunately, a briefing of the House by the NSA and FBI left many of them with more questions than before it began, and perhaps even more concerns:
Members of Congress on Tuesday expressed growing doubts about the way the country’s top-secret surveillance programs are managed, even as the top legislators from each party voiced confidence in the programs and showed little interest in a public discussion of the issue.
Emerging from an early evening closed-door briefing with officials from the National Security Agency, the Justice Department and the FBI, some members of the House of Representatives said they had more questions than answers about the surveillance programs that sweep up records from phone and Internet accounts belonging to millions of Americans.
“I think what really came out of it is that we need, as Congress, is to move forward and debate the issue,” said Rep. C.A. “Dutch” Ruppersberger of Maryland, the ranking Democrat on the House intelligence committee. “It’s really a debate on how far we go with public safety, and protecting us from terrorist attacks, versus how far we go on the other side and what programs we use to deal with that issue. This is what we do in Congress.”
Rep. Brad Sherman, D-Calif., a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said there “obviously” needs to be more congressional oversight on the telephone surveillance program, under which so-called metadata from cellphone records are surrendered to the FBI and the NSA on a daily basis.
“I did not know a billion records a day were coming under control of the executive branch,” Sherman said.
A billion records a day? What kind of records would those be? It doesn’t sound like that’s just metadata from Verizon, which is big but not that big.
The Hill also reports that if the NSA and FBI hoped to quell criticism with this briefing, they failed:
Lawmakers concerns over the National Security Agency’s surveillance programs were not alleviated after the full House received a briefing on the programs Tuesday. …
Rep. Elijah Cummings (Md.), senior Democrat on the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, has been critical of Obama’s surveillance programs, saying over the weekend that the administration has “gone too far” in eroding privacy rights.
Asked after Tuesday’s briefing if he still has those concerns, Cummings said simply, “Yes.”
“Most of the members that spoke seemed to be pretty concerned,” he added.
Rep. Billy Long (R-Mo.) has been among the loudest critics of the administration’s claims that it had briefed all members of Congress on the surveillance programs. Long said after Tuesday’s briefing that that consternation has now been alleviated, but he still has “grave concerns” about the programs themselves.
Not everyone’s concerns over prior briefings were “alleviated”:
Intelligence Committee leaders have said that lawmakers had access to the classified information had they requested briefings. But Sherman argued that the nature and scope of the program was essentially hidden even if it was available.
“If somewhere on page 9,412 was the disclosure of this program, it was well concealed under the other 9,000 pages,” Sherman said.
Back to the Billion A Day Diet, though. The Hill has a longer quote from Sherman that explains that the executive branch is indeed collecting a billion records a day, despite James Clapper’s denials over the weekend. They claim they’re not conducting searches on the data without FISA court warrants and good cause, but the court has no oversight over the data itself. The NSA may well be conducting raids on this stored data all day long, and only the NSA would know it. Given the agency’s history, that’s not a situation in which Congress or the American people will remain comfortable for long.
Update: Changed headline; briefing was broader than on PRISM, and it may not be the source for the “billion records a day,” or at least the sole source. Thanks to Gabriel Malor for pointing that out.