Policy & Strategy

Senators demand NSA clarify privacy protections in domestic intel programs

National Security Agency (NSA) official explanation of its domestic intelligence programs “portrays protections for Americans’ privacy as being significantly stronger than they actually are,” according to Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Mark Udall (D-Colo.)

{mosads}”When the NSA makes inaccurate statements about government surveillance . . . it can decrease public confidence in the [agency’s] openess” about such programs, both senators wrote in a letter to NSA chief Gen. Keith Alexander on Monday. 

To that end, Wyden and fellow Oregon Democrat Sen. Jeff Merkley are pushing legislation to declassify court rulings under the secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). 

Decisions by the FISA courts provided the legal justification for the NSA domestic intelligence programs illegally leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. 

“Rebulding this confidence will require a willingness to correct misstatements and . . . to make reforms where appropriate,” according to Monday’s letter. 

The public trust in the U.S. intelligence community has been rocked in recent weeks, due to the Snowden leaks. 

Snowden had been an employee with Booz Allen Hamilton when he leaked details of the NSA domestic intelligence programs to the Guardian and The Washington Post. 

One program, code-named PRISM, was designed to pull data from tech companies on foreign Internet users. The second program allowed the NSA to collect information about communications on all cellphones using the Verizon network. 

In June, Snowden admitted intentionally sought out the contractor position with NSA, with the goal of exposing the agency’s domestic intelligence operations. 

Alexander told Congress last Tuesday the classified domestic intelligence programs had foiled roughly 50 terror plots aimed at the United States and its allies. 

But the agency’s official “fact sheet” on Verizon phone tracking program released earlier this month claimed intelligence officials are able to track the number of Americans who were caught up in the phone sweep. 

“In fact, the the intelligence community has told us repeatedly it is not reasonably possible to identify the number” of U.S. citizens tracked under the Verizon program and what information was gleaned from those calls. 

For their part, intelligence and federal law enforcement officials have told Congress that information gained from Americans’ calls are “promptly destroyed” if it is not relevant to counter terrorism operations, according to the NSA fact sheet. 

Wyden and Udall cited several other instances where the agency fact sheet may have overemphasized privacy protections under both programs, but opted to include details of those examples in a “classified attachment” to Monday’s letter. 

“We believe the U.S. government should have broad authorities to investigate terrorism and espionage . . . without compromising the constitutional rights of ordinary Americans,” the lawmakers wrote. 

“Achieving this goal depends not just on secret courts and . . . congressional hearings, but on an informed public debate as well,” they added. 

Tags Jeff Merkley Mark Udall Ron Wyden

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