Patriot Act Author: CIA Spying Is ‘Almost Nixonian’

Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner is again demanding answers to his inquiry on how the government spies on Congress.

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
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Dustin Volz
March 13, 2014, 9:35 a.m.

The au­thor of the post-9/11 law that gran­ted the gov­ern­ment much of its mod­ern sur­veil­lance au­thor­ity is again de­mand­ing the gov­ern­ment ex­plain how and to what ex­tent it spies on mem­bers of Con­gress and their staffers.

“Tap­ping in­to com­puters used by mem­bers of Con­gress and at­tempts to use the Justice De­part­ment to in­tim­id­ate con­gres­sion­al staff is a gross vi­ol­a­tion of the con­sti­tu­tion­al prin­ciples of sep­ar­a­tion of powers,” Rep. Jim Sensen­bren­ner wrote in a Thursday let­ter to Deputy At­tor­ney Gen­er­al James Cole. “It paints an al­most-Nixoni­an pic­ture of an ad­min­is­tra­tion that be­lieves it can act with im­pun­ity be­hind a veil of secrecy.”

The Wis­con­sin Re­pub­lic­an’s new let­ter ar­rives on the heels of dra­mat­ic ac­cus­a­tions leveled this week by Sen. Di­anne Fein­stein that the CIA hacked her in­tel­li­gence pan­el’s com­puters dur­ing its in­vest­ig­a­tion in­to the spy agency’s Bush-era in­ter­rog­a­tion pro­grams. The let­ter asks Cole to re­spond to an earli­er re­quest sent last month by Sensen­bren­ner, in tan­dem with Reps. Jer­rold Nadler and Dar­rell Issa, ask­ing for a cla­ri­fic­a­tion of re­cent con­gres­sion­al testi­mony where he said the gov­ern­ment “prob­ably” spies on mem­bers of Con­gress.

“We prob­ably do,” Cole said in re­sponse to a string of ques­tions from Issa dur­ing a House Ju­di­ciary hear­ing in Feb­ru­ary. “But we’re not al­lowed to look at any of those [phone lines], however, un­less we have reas­on­able, ar­tic­ul­able sus­pi­cion that those num­bers are re­lated to a known ter­ror­ist threat.”

The ad­mis­sion should not have been sur­pris­ing, but it still in­censed a num­ber of law­makers. The ad­min­is­tra­tion has re­peatedly ar­gued that while vir­tu­ally all phone re­cords are sub­ject to its data sweeps — a tech­nique it says is ne­ces­sary to as­semble the whole hay­stack in or­der to find the needle — it ex­am­ines only re­cords de­term­ined to be rel­ev­ant to a ter­ror­ism in­vest­ig­a­tion.

Sensen­bren­ner’s new let­ter asks for a re­sponse no later than March 28, say­ing the is­sue “is even more press­ing giv­en re­cent state­ments” from Fein­stein about the CIA’s in­ter­fer­ence in her in­vest­ig­a­tion of the gov­ern­ment’s now-de­funct in­ter­rog­a­tion prac­tices. He also ex­pressed frus­tra­tion that more than a month has passed without any of­fi­cial re­sponse from the Justice De­part­ment.

But the let­ter also serves to put two of the most im­port­ant law­makers in­volved in the sur­veil­lance de­bate in the same corner for the first time since Ed­ward Snowden’s leaks last June sparked re­newed in­ter­na­tion­al scru­tiny of the Na­tion­al Se­cur­ity Agency’s activ­it­ies.

Sensen­bren­ner, the one­time mas­ter­mind of the Pat­ri­ot Act, is the chief spon­sor of the Free­dom Act, a bill that would strongly lim­it the NSA’s col­lec­tion of U.S. phone re­cords. He has re­peatedly cri­ti­cized both Obama and Pres­id­ent George W. Bush for mis­us­ing his Pat­ri­ot Act as a blank check for the bulk col­lec­tion of Amer­ic­ans’ phone re­cords.

Fein­stein, mean­while, has cham­pioned a bill that crit­ics, in­clud­ing Sensen­bren­ner, say would largely leave that pro­gram in­tact. The Cali­for­nia Demo­crat has long been a vo­cal de­fend­er of in­tel­li­gence agen­cies, un­til her 40-minute la­cer­a­tion of the CIA earli­er this week.

Sensen­bren­ner, in his let­ter, says any CIA spy­ing on Con­gress should be ad­dressed in the Justice De­part­ment’s re­sponse. 

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