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.