The Slatest

Not Even the NSA Knows If the NSA Spies on Congress

U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) speaks at a press conference at the U.S. Capitol on October 9, 2013 in Washington, DC.

Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images

Does the NSA spy on members of Congress? No, well, yes, maybe. That’s basically the answer NSA Director Keith Alexander gave to Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) in a letter dated Jan. 10 but released on Tuesday.

“Nothing NSA does can fairly be characterized as ‘spying on members of Congress or other American elected officials,’” Alexander wrote in the letter, implying that the agency does not target members of Congress. But when it comes to bulk data collection, Senators and Representatives may be, incidentally, out of luck. There’s no way to tell…because privacy. The director explains:

“The NSA can query the metadata only based on phone numbers reasonably suspected to be associated with specific foreign terrorist groups. For that reason, NSA cannot lawfully search to determine if any records NSA has received under the program have included metadata of the phone calls of any member of Congress, other American elected officials, or any other American without that predicate.”

So the Kafkaesque logic goes. Congress, it seems, must endure the same surveillance as the rest of us. Sanders, who is fighting against wholesale collection of phone records – for elected officials and civilians alike, explained his specific concern regarding members of Congress in a response to Alexander on Tuesday evening:

“Let us not forget that a mere 40 years ago we had a president of the United States who completely disregarded the law in an effort to destroy his political opponents. In my view, the information collected by the NSA has the potential to give an unscrupulous administration enormous power over elected officials.”

On Friday, President Obama is expected to address the NSA and possible surveillance reforms.