Administration's phone surveillance broke the law, says Conyers

The top Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee accused the Obama administration on Thursday of breaking the law by collecting the phone records of millions of Americans. 

"It seems clear the government's activity exceeds the authority this Congress has provided — both in letter and in spirit," Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) said during a Judiciary Committee oversight hearing of the FBI.

He said that he and Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.) will introduce legislation on Thursday to explicitly narrow the Patriot Act to prevent broad surveillance.

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"In no small part because of the actions of the NSA and the FBI, I fear we are on the verge of becoming a surveillance state, collecting billions of electronic records on law-abiding Americans every single day," Conyers said.

The Guardian newspaper published a secret court order last week that required Verizon to turn over the phone records of millions of its customers to the FBI and the NSA. The records include phone numbers, call time, call duration and other information, but not the contents of the conversations themselves.

The secret court oder was based on Section 215 of the Patriot Act, which allows the government to collect business records but requires that they must be "relevant" to a terrorism investigation.

At the hearing, FBI Director Robert Mueller emphasized his agency's respect for privacy.

"Regardless of the challenges we face, the FBI remains firmly committed to carrying out our mission while protecting the civil rights and civil liberties of the citizens we serve," he said.

He said the government's phone surveillance program is "set up for a very limited purpose and a limited objective, and that is to identify individuals in the United States who are using a telephone for terrorist activities."

He argued that the program is not a "dragnet" because it doesn't collect the content of communications.

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said in a statement last week that although the government obtains phone records on millions of people in the United States, the Foreign Intelligence Security Act prohibits agents from "indiscriminately sifting" through the data.

"The court only allows the data to be queried when there is a reasonable suspicion, based on specific facts, that the particular basis for the query is associated with a foreign terrorist organization," Clapper said. 

—Jordy Yager contributed to this report.