By Alexander Bolton - 06/07/13 10:00 AM EDT
Lawmakers will review domestic surveillance laws in the wake of a leaked document showing the National Security Agency (NSA) has collected millions of phone records, which provoked an uproar in the Capitol.
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• The Hill's Bob Cusack breaks down the story
The government's admission of "PRISM," a classified program in which data is mined from the servers of nine leading Internet companies, is also expected to garner scrutiny. It allows the government to extract photos, videos, emails, audio and documents to track individuals. An administration official on Thursday night insisted it was not used to track U.S. citizens.
Congress has repeatedly voted to reauthorize language in the 2001 Patriot Act granting intelligence agencies broad discretion to collect phone data, but many lawmakers were not fully aware of the implication of their votes.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) would review the law and the surveillance program.
“Is the program perfect? Of course not,” said Reid. “I think what we should do is make sure Sen. Feinstein has an opportunity to review what has gone on.
“We’ve tried often to try to make it better and work, and we’ll continue to do that,” he added.
Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), a leading Republican on national security issues, said Congress should hold hearings to investigate if the NSA’s review of records extended far beyond suspected terrorists.
“We need to understand the scope and the depth,” said McCain. “If it was something where we just blanket started finding out who everybody called and under what circumstances, then I think it deserves congressional hearings.
“Before we leap to the conclusion that it’s absolutely wrong, let’s find out the details of the program,” he added.
“I would like to know why they’re doing this,” said Sen. Charles Schumer (N.Y.), the third-ranking Democratic leader.
“Are we going to regularly ask this question about what we’ve done after 9/11 to keep America safe, to make certain we’re not going too far to invade the privacy of Americans?” said Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin (Ill.).
Federal officials focused their surveillance on so-called metadata, such as phone numbers, call locations and call durations. White House officials say it did not include the content of calls.
Democrats emphasized the broad surveillance program began under the administration of former President George W. Bush.
Feinstein expressed concerns over how The Guardian obtained a secret court order authorizing the surveillance and said it warrants an investigation.
“This is under seal, and it’s leaked,” she said. “Someone doesn’t like it, so they’re going to leak it.”
Feinstein and Sen. Saxby Chambliss (Ga.), the ranking Republican on the Intelligence Committee, said the blanket surveillance practices have been going on for seven years and lawmakers were informed of it.
“Everyone’s been aware of it for years, every member of the Senate,” said Chambliss.
But some senators disputed that assertion.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), a critic of the phone data mining project, said senators had a general idea of surveillance activity but did not know it netted millions of people.
“I don’t think that’s accurate. In a general sense, yes, but with specificity, no,” Sanders said of what he and his colleagues knew.
Sanders said Congress should review Section 215 of the Patriot Act and strengthen language requiring law enforcement officials to more narrowly define targets.
Schumer said he was not briefed on the NSA’s program.
Sen. Rand Paul (Ky.), a libertarian-leaning Republican and a longtime critic of the Patriot Act and expansion of federal surveillance powers, said many of his colleagues have not paid sufficient attention to the intelligence community.
“Hopefully people are going to wake up some,” he said.
Paul argued the broad sweeps of data are not effective because they are not adequately targeted on suspected terrorists.
One bill that may receive renewed attention is the Electronic Communications Privacy Act Amendments Act, sponsored by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), a member of the Senate Tea Party Caucus.
It would prohibit the provider of an electronic communication service from knowingly divulging to any government entity the contents of a communication in electronic storage, according to a summary by the Congressional Research Service.
“I think that bill has a really good chance of passing,” Paul said.
Feinstein said in an interview Thursday that the surveillance was authorized by the Patriot Act, which does not expire until 2015. Congress passed the law in 2001 and renewed the relevant provisions in 2005, 2009, 2010 and 2011, according to a Judiciary panel source.
Intelligence agencies briefed senators about the program Thursday afternoon.
Feinstein said colleagues should have known about the details of the surveillance program from briefings offered by the Intelligence panel.
“They don’t come,” she said.