House lawmakers are accusing the Justice Department of lying about whether the government may be snooping on members of Congress.
Cole said during a Judiciary Committee hearing last week that National Security Agency (NSA) officials “probably” collect data about lawmakers’ phone calls, but cannot look at the information.
“We probably do, Mr. Congressman,” Cole said, responding to a question from Issa. “But we’re not allowed to look at any of those, however, unless we have reasonable, articulable suspicion that those numbers are related to a known terrorist threat.”
“The NSA looks at individual numbers when it has low level, particularized suspicion, but it looks at millions more with no suspicion of wrongdoing whatsoever, some of whom may well be Members of Congress,” the lawmakers wrote on Wednesday.
“We therefore urge you to clarify your testimony and fully disclose all of the ways in which the government conducts or may possibly conduct surveillance on Members of Congress,” they added.
Officials at the NSA can look at the call records of people who it suspects may be terrorists or connected to terrorists. Officials can also look at records of any phone number that person calls as well as any number that has been in contact with one of those numbers, a distance referred to as two “hops” from the suspect.
In Wednesday’s letter, the three lawmakers wrote that the program “likely violates our Fourth Amendment right to privacy and chills our First Amendment right to free association.”
When the executive branch snoops on members of Congress, they added, “it also raises grave Separation of Powers concerns for the executive branch to interfere with the private communications of the legislative branch without congressional knowledge."
Sensenbrenner, the original author of the Patriot Act, has been one of the most vocal critics of the NSA phone records program. He has introduced the USA Freedom Act, which would end the program.
NSA officials were previously able to view numbers three hops away from a suspect, but President Obama called to limit the searches as one way to reform the measure.