Congress to review NSA's surveillance

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 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.

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A report Thursday by The Guardian newspaper that the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court granted an order to the FBI in April to authorize the collection of millions of phone records put new scrutiny on the surveillance laws.

Senate Majority Leader Harry ReidHarry Mason ReidWhite House seeks to shield Biden from GOP attacks on crime issue Lobbying world Warner backing 'small carve-out' on filibuster for voting rights MORE (D-Nev.) said Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne FeinsteinDianne Emiel FeinsteinNearly 140 Democrats urge EPA to 'promptly' allow California to set its own vehicle pollution standards Biden signs bill to bolster crime victims fund Stripping opportunity from DC's children MORE (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 McCainJohn Sidney McCainMeghan McCain to produce 'Don't Sweat the Small Stuff' Lifetime movie starring Heather Locklear An August ultimatum: No recess until redistricting reform is done Meghan McCain on Pelosi, McCarthy fight: 'I think they're all bad' MORE (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 SchumerChuck SchumerAn August ultimatum: No recess until redistricting reform is done Biden to meet with 11 Democratic lawmakers on DACA: report Schumer's moment to transform transit and deepen democracy MORE (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 DurbinDick DurbinInmates grapple with uncertainty over Biden prison plan Democrats warn shrinking Biden's spending plan could backfire Biden backs effort to include immigration in budget package MORE (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 ChamblissClarence (Saxby) Saxby ChamblissEffective and profitable climate solutions are within the nation's farms and forests Live coverage: Georgia Senate runoffs Trump, Biden face new head-to-head contest in Georgia MORE (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 SandersBernie SandersAngst grips America's most liberal city Democrats warn shrinking Biden's spending plan could backfire Democrats say they have the votes to advance .5T budget measure MORE (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 PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - A huge win for Biden, centrist senators Only two people cited by TSA for mask violations have agreed to pay fine Senators reach billion deal on emergency Capitol security bill MORE (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 LeahyPatrick Joseph LeahyThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Biden sets new vaccine mandate as COVID-19 cases surge House clears .1 billion Capitol security bill, sending to Biden Senate passes .1 billion Capitol security bill MORE (D-Vt.) and Sen. Mike LeeMichael (Mike) Shumway LeeHouse GOP stages mask mandate protest 228 Republican lawmakers urge Supreme Court to overrule Roe v. Wade Economic growth rose to 6.5 percent annual rate in second quarter MORE (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.