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Democrat asks intel agencies if they're surveilling members of Congress

Democrat asks intel agencies if they're surveilling members of Congress
© Greg Nash

Rep. Anna EshooAnna Georges EshooHow to expand rural broadband, fast and affordably Hillicon Valley: Productivity, fatigue, cybersecurity emerge as top concerns amid pandemic | Facebook critics launch alternative oversight board | Google to temporarily bar election ads after polls close Lawmakers introduce legislation to boost cybersecurity of local governments, small businesses MORE (D-Calif.), a senior member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, asked two intelligence agencies on Friday if surveillance has been conducted on members of Congress in the last decade.

In a letter to the heads of the National Security Agency (NSA) and Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI), Eshoo raised alarm over allegations in a book published earlier this year by journalist Barton Gellman. The book included claims about an NSA surveillance tool used by former contractor Edward Snowden to allegedly search for communications associated with a House member's publicly listed official email address where constituents can contact their office.

Eshoo further pointed to a claim from Snowden in the book that he “wiretapped the internet communications" of the so-called Gang of Eight — the heads of the House and Senate Intelligence committees and top party leaders in both chambers — as well as the Supreme Court. But the claim appeared to be untrue because Snowden couldn't find the private email addresses belonging to the lawmakers and Supreme Court justices.

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Eshoo expressed alarm about the allegations, saying such surveillance could violate constituents' privacy and threatened the separation of powers.

"The surveillance of Congressional and judicial communications by the executive branch seriously threatens the separation of powers principles of our Constitution. While no member of Congress, Supreme Court Justice, or any other individual is above the law, their communications, like those of all Americans, should only be collected by the government pursuant to a specific warrant authorized by an independent court as part of a criminal or intelligence investigation," Eshoo wrote.

Neither the ODNI nor the NSA immediately returned requests for comment.

The California Democrat asked the ODNI and NSA to answer a series of questions by Sept. 28, pressing the agencies on how many times in the last decade an intelligence community employee or contractor has conducted surveillance — including "contents of communications, metadata or any other information" — on members of Congress, federal judges, Supreme Court justices or any other employees of either the legislative or judicial branches.

She also asked if "technical safeguards" are in place to prevent intelligence community employees or contractors from using databases to search for information about people in the legislative or judicial branches without legal authorization.

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"Our system of government is premised on the fundamental idea of separation of powers. Three co-equal branches of government with constitutionally prescribed checks and balances maintain independent spheres of government," Eshoo wrote.

There is precedent of U.S. intelligence agencies spying on members of Congress and their staff.

In 2014, a Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) inspector general report found that its officers spied on Senate Intelligence Committee investigators preparing a report on the agency's interrogation program.

The CIA also acknowledged in 1975 that it had kept files on then-Rep. Bella Abzug (D-N.Y.), dating back to when she served as a lawyer for a client that appeared before the House Committee on Un-American Activities. The CIA also said that it had kept counterintelligence files on at least three other members of Congress as part of its operations against critics of the Vietnam War.

The Justice Department in 2013 charged Snowden of violating the Espionage Act for disclosing details of highly classified government surveillance programs. Snowden has remained in Russia in the years since then to avoid prosecution.