Holder, Hatch defend phone surveillance

Attorney General Eric Holder testified in front of a Senate panel Wednesday to defend the government's sweeping surveillance programs, including the one that collects data on virtually all American phone calls.

From his seat on the Judiciary Committee, Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) backed up several of Holder's points in defense of the National Security Agency.

“The NSA has not abused or misused” its authority by collecting “very limited” information about phone calls, Hatch said during Wednesday’s hearing on the Justice Department.

The program, which has been the controversial crux of the debate around surveillance reform, collects data about calls, such as the phone numbers involved and length of call.

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“It’s worth reminding ourselves what that information is and what it is not,” Hatch said.

Holder agreed, saying the agency “has acted in a way that’s consistent with the law.”

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) pressed Holder on the constitutionality of the NSA's activities, regardless of the NSA's interpretation of standing law.

“Is there anything in the Constitution that allows us to pass such an overboard law, allow us to search anything we want?” he asked.
 
Leahy compared the agency’s surveillance activity to a hypothetical congressionally passed law that would allow law enforcement officials to imprison citizens at will.
 
Congress “can pass such a law,” but it “would not pass constitutional tests at all,” he said.

Holder and Hatch pushed back on critics’ argument that the program has not prevented terrorist attacks and therefore should be shut down.

Holder said that argument uses the wrong criteria to judge the effectiveness of a surveillance program. 

There is “a mosaic of things that we take into consideration” when attempting to prevent terrorist attacks, and the phone call database is one of those things, he said.

Hatch also challenged the idea — floated by President Obama — that phone companies should hold the phone call database rather than the NSA.

If the data is held by the phone companies, it would be “accessible by far more individuals than it is today,” he said, asking how phone companies could “possibly provide a comparable level of supervision?”

Hatch said having private companies store the data would raise even more privacy and data security concerns. “Just look at Target and Neiman Marcus,” he said, referring to the two retail giants that recently suffered from data breaches.

Holder commended the oversight already in place at the NSA. 

There is a “great deal of oversight, and the oversight has yielded issues that have been resolved,” he said. While there have been some misuses of the agency’s surveillance authority, “those have all been corrected once brought to the attention of the NSA.”

Holder pointed to an announcement earlier this week that Justice would allow communications companies to disclose more information about the scope of foreign intelligence requests for data they receive. 

The announcement comes after tech companies — including Google, Facebook and Microsoft — challenged the government gag orders in court.

“Through these new reporting methods, communications providers will be permitted to disclose more information than ever before to their customers,” Holder said.