Incensed at the way that the Department of Justice and the intelligence community have used the controversial section 215 of the PATRIOT Act, members of the House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday angrily questioned Justice and NSA officials about their surveillance of U.S. citizens and said that when section 215 expires in two years, it won’t be renewed.
The hearing was the latest in a string of what have turned into interrogations of top Justice, law enforcement and intelligence community officials in the wake of the leaks of classified documents revealing the methods that the NSA and FBI use to gather phone metadata and email and Web records. The leaks have spurred a conversation in Washington about the use of section 215, as well as section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, to collect data on Americans.
In June, shortly after the leaks by Edward Snowden began, the Senate Appropriations Committee grilled NSA Director Gen. Keith Alexander on the agency’s methods, asking why the surveillance was so broad and why so much data was collected, including data belonging to U.S. citizens. Alexander said that while the NSA does collect a lot of data, the agency doesn’t have the ability to paw through it at will and that its methods are meant to help protect citizens.
“I do think what we’re doing does protect Americans’ civil liberties and privacy,” Alexander said. “To date, we have not been able to explain it because it’s been classified. How can we explain it and still keep the nation secure? That’s the issue in front of us.”
Alexander wasn’t present at the hearing Wednesday, but his deputy, John Inglis, was, as was James Cole, deputy attorney general. During the hearing, which stretched out for several hours, committee members from both parties took issue withe the way that the NSA and Justice Department have gone about their business in recent years, especially regarding the use of section 215 to justify widespread surveillance and data collection. Although that measure is not new and Congress has been aware of its use for surveillance purposes, Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) said that doesn’t justify what the NSA has done.
“”We never, at any point during this debate, approved the type of unchecked, sweeping surveillance of United States citizens,” he said.
Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act enables the government to get access to any “tangible thing” that’s deemed relevant to an ongoing investigation that involves national security. The government has interpreted that to mean that records such as telephone metadata and email and other online activities are fair game for collection. The interpretation of the word “relevant” in those investigations has become a key point, as well.
Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wisc.), who helped write the PATRIOT Act, was unsparing in his criticism of the way that the act has been used and interpreted by the intelligence and law enforcement communities. He said that unless the Justice Department changed the way it did business, it would find itself without the ability to use section 215 soon.
“Section 215 expires at the end of 2015,” Sensenbrenner said to Cole of the Justice Department. “Unless you realize you’ve got a problem, that is not going to be renewed. There are not the votes in the House of Representatives to renew section 215.”
In a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder last month, Sensenbrenner said much the same thing, warning that section 215 was not meant to be used as a tool to collect data on any American at any time and that Congress would be unlikely to renew the provision when it sunsets in 2015 if nothing changes between now and then.
“Section 215 is an urgent tool and crucial to intelligence agencies, but if such abuses are not reined in, it will be very difficult to reauthorize these provision when they sunset in 2015,” the letter says.
Officials at the EFF said that while the hearing was a step forward in the debate surrounding the use of section 215, there is still room for more to be done.
“The tough questions representatives asked today are a great first step. But more needs to be done. The secret law surrounding the programs must be released. Congress cannot craft legislative solutions without finding out how the government uses, and interprets, the statutes. Congress, and the American public, can’t rein in a domestic spying apparatus run wild without knowing the full extent of the NSA’s spying program,” Mark Jaycox of the EFF wrote in analysis.