– Republican and Democrat members of Congress have expressed deep scepticism about the US government’s bulk collection of American’s telephone records and have threatened not to renew the authority used to sanction a program described as “off the tracks legally”.
A congressional backlash appeared to be coalescing around the idea that the Obama administration’s interpretation of its powers far exceeded what members of Congress intended.
At a hearing of the House of Representatives judiciary committee on Wednesday, members of Congress pressed officials from the National Security Agency, the Justice Department, the FBI and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence to justify collecting and storing the communications records of vast numbers of Americans.
“This is unsustainable, it’s outrageous and must be stopped immediately,” the panel’s most senior Democrat, John Conyers said.
Congressman James Sensenbrenner, who sponsored the Patriot Act, warned the House might not renew the act’s Section 215, which gives the government its authority.
The sharp and sometimes angry questioning cane as the government faced legal challenges to its collection of “metadata”, that is, information about the numbers called by Americans, the date and time of the calls, and how long they lasted.
Intelligence officials insisted the program operated under tight guidelines, was overseen by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court and had been crucial to disrupting terrorist plots.
The American Civil Liberties Union said the NSA had been trying to make it seem like it peeked at the communications of a tiny subset of people, but it had, in fact, reviewed the communication patterns of millions of individuals.
The ACLU was on you more than 50 signatories of a letter to President Barack Obama and congressional leaders calling for more disclosure about the scale of surveillance requests to technology and telecommunications companies.
Legislators said the surveillance effort, disclosed by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, was too broad and intrusive.
“I think very clearly this program has gone off the tracks legally and needs to be reigned in,” Californian Democrat Zoe Lofgren said.
Deputy Attorney-General James Cole said the data did not include names or other identifying information, or the content of phone calls. He said the records were not protected by the Fourth Amendment.
Several members of Congress disagreed. “I maintain that the Forth Amendment, to be free from unreasonable search and seizure, means this metadata collected in such a super-aggregated fashion can amount to a Fourth Amendment violation before you do anything else,” Mr Conyers said – Sari Horwitz


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