Feds: NSA “˜Probably’ Spies on Members of Congress

The admission is hardly surprising, but expect lawmakers to feign outrage anyway.

Civil liberties activists hold a rally against surveillance of US citizens as US President Barack Obama is expected to announce reforms of the National Security Agency (NSA) at the Justice Department in Washington on January 17, 2014.
National Journal
Dustin Volz
Feb. 4, 2014, 8:12 a.m.

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The Na­tion­al Se­cur­ity Agency “prob­ably” col­lects phone re­cords of mem­bers of Con­gress and their staffs, a seni­or Justice De­part­ment of­fi­cial con­ceded Tues­day.

Deputy At­tor­ney Gen­er­al James Cole buckled un­der ques­tion­ing from mul­tiple law­makers dur­ing a House Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee hear­ing re­view­ing pro­pos­als to re­form the NSA’s sur­veil­lance activ­ity.

Rep. Zoe Lof­gren, a Cali­for­nia Demo­crat, began by ask­ing Peter Swire, a mem­ber of the pres­id­ent’s hand­picked sur­veil­lance re­view board, wheth­er law­makers’ num­bers are in­cluded in the agency’s phone-re­cords sweeps. Swire pro­tested that he was not a gov­ern­ment of­fi­cial and couldn’t best an­swer the ques­tion, but said he was un­aware of any mech­an­ism that “scrubbed out” mem­ber phone num­bers from the agency’s data haul.

Lof­gren’s time ex­pired and Rep. Dar­rell Issa, a Cali­for­nia Re­pub­lic­an, then put the ques­tion to Cole.

“Mr. Cole, do you col­lect 202, 225, and four di­gits af­ter­wards?” Issa asked, re­fer­ring to the pre­fixes used to call con­gres­sion­al of­fices.

“We prob­ably do, Mr. Con­gress­man,” Cole re­spon­ded. “But we’re not al­lowed to look at any of those, however, un­less we have reas­on­able, ar­tic­ul­able sus­pi­cion that those num­bers are re­lated to a known ter­ror­ist threat.”

While the ad­mis­sion is hardly sur­pris­ing, giv­en that the rais­on d’être of the NSA’s sweeps is to col­lect data of vir­tu­ally all Amer­ic­ans, it may mark the first time the gov­ern­ment has re­spon­ded so dir­ectly to the ques­tion.

Sev­er­al mem­bers of Con­gress have re­cently agit­ated to know wheth­er their phone re­cords are in­cluded in the NSA’s sweep­ing data grabs. Last month, Sen. Bernie Sanders, a Ver­mont in­de­pend­ent, sent a let­ter to NSA Dir­ect­or Keith Al­ex­an­der ask­ing wheth­er Con­gress was spied on.

In re­sponse, Al­ex­an­der said that “noth­ing NSA does can be fairly char­ac­ter­ized as ‘spy­ing on mem­bers of Con­gress or oth­er Amer­ic­an elec­ted of­fi­cials.’ ” His let­ter did not ex­pli­citly say wheth­er con­gres­sion­al phone re­cords were gathered, however.

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