House members voice skepticism about surveillance programs after FBI, NSA briefing

The National Security Agency building at Fort Meade, Md., Sept. 19, 2007
The National Security Agency building at Fort Meade, Md., Sept. 19, 2007 AP

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.

Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Ga., said that several lawmakers were skeptical about what they were being told about the surveillance programs and the information being collected.

“A lot of skepticism, ironically, from folks that voted in favor of it in the first place,” he said.

The House briefing came hours after eight U.S. senators – six Democrats and two Republicans – introduced legislation that would require the U.S. attorney general to make public secret decisions of the court that grants permission for collection of such records. The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court has rejected only 11 such applications among the more than 30,000 cases it’s considered since it was founded in 1979.

“Americans deserve to know how much information about their private communications the government believes it’s allowed to take under the law,” Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., said in a statement. “There is plenty of room to have this debate without compromising our surveillance sources or methods or tipping our hand to our enemies. We can’t have a serious debate about how much surveillance of Americans’ communications should be permitted without ending secret law.”

Joining him in his effort were Sens. Mike Lee, R-Utah, Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., Dean Heller, R-Nev., Mark Begich, D-Alaska, Al Franken, D-Minn., Jon Tester, D-Mont., and Ron Wyden, D-Ore.

“Alaskans highly value their privacy and their right to privacy,” Begich said. “Our Alaska constitution specifically protects this right from being trampled on while ensuring national security information isn’t at risk.”

But they were met with a torrent of opposition as Senate leaders, as well as much of the rank and file, vigorously defended the programs in a sign of how difficult it would be in Congress to change the law that governs such surveillance.

In a rare display of bipartisanship, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., found themselves on the same side of an issue in defending two programs the details of which were revealed last week by Britain’s The Guardian newspaper and The Washington Post. One of the programs involves the cellphone records, the other allows the government access to Internet accounts handled by nine companies, including Facebook, Google and Yahoo.

“What is clear from this information released by the (director of national intelligence) is that each of these programs is authorized by law, overseen by Congress and the courts and subject to ongoing and rigorous oversight,” McConnell said.

Reid cited polls this week that found backing for the programs. “The American people, in polls . . . support what is happening with trying to stop terrorists from doing bad things to us,” he said.

A Pew-Washington Post poll Thursday through Sunday found that 56 percent saw the National Security Agency’s secret court orders to track millions of Americans’ phone calls as an acceptable way to probe terrorism. The survey found strong support across party lines.

Reid was critical of senators who’ve said they don’t have enough information about the programs.

“We’ve had many, many meetings that have been both classified and unclassified that members have been invited to,” he said. “They shouldn’t come and say, ‘I wasn’t aware of this,’ because they’ve had every opportunity to be aware of all these programs.”

All 100 members of the Senate are to receive a briefing on Thursday similar to the one House members heard Tuesday.

Reid’s and McConnell’s comments came on the first full day of work for both houses of Congress since news broke last week about the surveillance programs.

Obama administration officials have defended both programs as allowing a broad search for terrorist-related communications. They say no U.S. person’s records are perused unless a court order has been issued.

Members of Congress were quick to denounce Edward Snowden, the 29-year-old computer system administrator who said he’d leaked the material to both The Guardian and The Washington Post.

“He’s a traitor,” House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, told ABC. “The disclosure of this information puts Americans at risk. It shows our adversaries what our capabilities are. And it’s a giant violation of the law.”

Such declarations suggested that it will be difficult for legislation affecting the way the programs are managed to move forward.

Asked when his plan might come up, Merkley was vague. The Senate intends to debate immigration legislation the rest of this month, and it’s not expected that Merkley’s plan could be attached to that measure.

“I can’t speak to that yet,” Merkley said of his plan’s legislative strategy.

Neither could Reid. “I don’t know what it is but will be happy to take a look at it,” he said.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a leading Senate voice on national security matters, was not supportive.

“The whole point is to have judicial oversight without telling our enemies,” he said. “Why don’t we just take ads out in the paper and tell al Qaida this is the way we’re following you around. Do you have any problems? Call us. This is ridiculous.”

There was also little eagerness to start a broader debate.

“I believe the programs are legal,” said Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich.

Reid said the intelligence committee “has done their very utmost, in my opinion, to conduct oversight.”

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