Federal officials at the National Security Agency (NSA) “probably” collect information about phone calls members of Congress make, a top Justice Department official said on Tuesday.
In a House Judiciary Committee hearing on reforms to the spy agency's programs, Deputy Attorney General James Cole responded to a question about whether or not the government collects lawmakers’ records.
“Probably we do,” he said.
“We’re not allowed to look,” he added. “While they may be in the database, we can’t look at any of those numbers in the court order without violating the court order.”
The bulk phone records collection program, which gathers information about virtually all calls in the United States, has emerged as one of the most controversial NSA activities disclosed by leaks from former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.
The program collects the numbers people dial, the length of their calls and how often they make them, which is known as metadata. It does not collect the content of the calls.
In order to search the database, federal officials need to assert that there is a reasonable suspicion that someone is connected to a terrorist. But all call information is collected, Cole said.
“We don’t screen anything out to my knowledge," he told lawmakers.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who has been a critic of the data collection program, has asked the agency whether or not it has snooped on members of Congress.
President Obama last month outlined some reforms to rein in the surveillance program. He called for officials to obtain a court order before searching the database and limited their searches to people two steps removed from a suspected terrorist, instead of the current three.
He directed the Justice Department and top intelligence leaders to work with Congress on additional reforms.