Senate hears testimony on government surveillance

The Senate held a hearing Wednesday to discuss government surveillance programs, with particular emphasis on Section 215 of the USA PATRIOT Act and Section 702 of FISA, which have respectively served as NSA’s justifications for bulk phone records collection and online communications surveillance, and have recently been the subject of some disturbing disclosures about the extent of government intrusion into Americans’ personal lives.

Pressed on these disclosures, representatives from the DOJ, NSA, DNI, and FBI sought to defend the programs as legitimate, arguing that such intelligence-gathering is necessary to prevent terrorism; is not as novel and broad as has been reported; and is checked by the FISA Court, congressional reauthorization, and executive compliance audits.

Critics, however, contested each claim.

When FBI Deputy Director Sean Joyce argued that “[e]ach and every tool is valuable [for counterterrorism],” Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT) noted:

Contrary to the administration’s public claim of 54 foiled plots, for example, my own recent review of the classified list found nothing close to that number ... after receiving the classified document on plots foiled by 215, I’m far from convinced that it’s been necessary.

Further, after DOJ Deputy Attorney General James Cole pointed to the limited nature of phone database queries in 2012, ACLU Deputy Legal Director Jameel Jaffer contended:

Even if the government ran queries on only 300 unique identifiers in 2012, those searches implicated the privacy of millions of Americans … analysts are permitted to examine the call records of all individuals within three “hops” of a specific target. As a result, a query yields information not only about the individual … but about all of those separated from that individual by one, two, or three degrees. Even if one assumes, conservatively, that each person has an average of 40 unique contacts, an analyst who accessed the records of everyone within three hops of an initial target would have accessed records concerning more than two million people.

Finally, in responding to the claim that the public, through Congress, had granted authority for the surveillance through the PATRIOT Act and FISA, Senator Al Franken (D-MN) reasoned:

There’s a balancing act between security and privacy, but when almost everything is done in secret, the public has no way of knowing whether we’re getting the balance right.

And today, the balance has tipped much too far away from our fundamental freedoms. Urge Congress to repeal the PATRIOT Act.

PFAW