Attorney General Eric Holder, in his first public appearance since revelations that the government has been engaged in wholesale collection of citizens' telecommunications data, declined to answer pointed questions from Congress on Thursday, saying a public hearing was not the right venue to discuss the issue.
Republican Sen. Mark Kirk of Illinois sought assurances from Holder that the National Security Agency and the FBI dragnet of phone records did not include members of Congress or the Supreme Court. "When government bureaucrats are sloppy, they're usually really sloppy," he said.
Holder, called to testify on the Justice Department's fiscal 2014 budget before the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies, declined to answer, saying it was an "inappropriate setting."
"There's been no intention to do anything of that nature, that is to spy on members of Congress, on members of the Supreme Court," Holder said.
Holder said members of Congress had been briefed on the issue, but Committee Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., pointed out that "fully briefed" often means that only a handful of lawmakers have been briefed, adding that the term is something that "drives us up a wall."
Mikulski, Holder, and subcommittee ranking member Richard Shelby, R-Ala., agreed to hold a classified briefing to address questions about the NSA's records seizure.
Earlier Thursday, Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Vice Chairman Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., downplayed the revelations, saying Congress had been informed.
On Wednesday, the Guardian reported that the NSA collected telecommunications records of millions of customers of Verizon, raising questions about how the government balances national security concerns with citizens' privacy.
This article appears in the June 7, 2013, edition of NJ Daily.