NSA can't say if it collected data on lawmakers, officials

The National Security Agency said it is lawfully unable to search its database to determine if it has swept up phone records from members of Congress or other elected officials. 

NSA Director Keith Alexander said, however, nothing the agency does can be fairly described as “spying on Members of Congress” or U.S. politicians, according to a letter dated Jan. 10.

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The director said the agency could not cull its database because it can only access records that are reasonably suspected to be linked to a foreign terrorist group. 

“For that reason, NSA cannot lawfully search to determine if any records NSA has received under the program have included metadata of the phone calls of any member of Congress, other American elected officials, or any other American without that predicate,” Alexander said. 

Alexander was responding to Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) who sent a letter to the director earlier this month asking if the agency had spied on members of Congress. Sanders had classified the collection of metadata under an NSA program — including call times, duration and phone numbers — as spying. 

In a statement, Sanders said he remained concerned the NSA did not deny the collection of data on lawmakers. He said elected officials' information is particularly vulnerable to abuse. 
 
“In my view, the information collected by the NSA has the potential to give an unscrupulous administration enormous power over elected officials,” Sanders said.

The NSA letter reiterated that President Obama’s review group had already concluded that there was no evidence that the agency abused the program to target “domestic political activity." 

“NSA may not target any American for foreign intelligence collection without a finding of probable cause that the proposed target of collection is a foreign power or an agent of a foreign power,” Alexander said. 

The phone metadata collected on Americans is handled with a number of privacy protections, Alexander noted. 

“All those protections apply to members of Congress, as they do to all Americans,” he said in the letter

The agency released a statement a day after Sanders sent his letter reiterating the same thing. 

Sanders has been a harsh critic of the NSA program that sweeps up bulk phone metadata on millions of Americans, and he has introduced a number of reforms to curb the agency. 

Obama is slated to outline a list of reforms to the agency on Friday based on recommendations by his review group.