DOJ official: Freedom Act may not stop sweeping spying

Even if Congress passes the USA Freedom Act, the National Security Agency might continue to collect records on virtually all U.S. phone calls, according to a top Justice Department official. [WATCH VIDEO]

“If the USA Freedom Act becomes law, it’s going to depend on how the court interprets any number of the provisions that are in it,” Deputy Attorney General James Cole said Wednesday during a hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) has introduced the USA Freedom Act with the stated purpose of ending the NSA’s bulk phone record collection program.

{mosads}Leaks by Edward Snowden showed that the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court granted the NSA permission to collect records on all U.S. phone calls under Section 215 of the Patriot Act, even though the law only allows the agency to collect records that are “relevant” to terrorism.

Leahy and other lawmakers have expressed shock that the NSA is using the provision to collect data on millions of Americans not suspected of any wrongdoing. 

The USA Freedom Act would amend the Patriot Act to require that the records be relevant to terrorism and that they pertain to an agent of a foreign power or a person in contact with an agent of a foreign power.

But Cole suggested that that language might not actually be tough enough to stop the NSA. 

“Right now the interpretation of the word ‘relevant’ is a broad interpretation,” Cole said during the hearing. 

“Adding ‘pertinent to a foreign agent’ or ‘somebody in contact with a foreign agent’ could be another way of talking about relevance as it is right now. We’d have to see how broadly the court interprets that or how narrowly.”

NSA Director Keith Alexander urged the lawmakers not to end the bulk collection program.

“There is no other way that we know of to connect the dots,” he said, arguing the data collection can help thwart terrorist attacks.

But Leahy argued the NSA is sacrificing privacy for questionable improvements in national security.

He warned the program is ripe for abuse, asking what notorious FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover would have done with the powers the NSA has today.

“We give up a lot of our privacy in this country, and frankly I worry about giving up too much,” the Democratic chairman said. “Can we be totally secure? Of course we cannot. You cannot be totally secure going out for dinner in the evening from some random shooter who isn’t even aiming for you.” 

Tags James Cole nsa Patrick Leahy Senate Judiciary Committee

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