In Surveillance Hearing, House Committee Blasts Government Over “Serious Violation” of Law

Deputy Attorney General James Cole, Director of National Intelligence Robert Litt, Deputy Director of the National Security Agency John Inglis, and Stephanie Douglas, executive assistant director of the FBI’s National Security Branch, are sworn in prior to testifying before the House Judiciary Committee on FISA

Photo by JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images

The Obama administration has vigorously defended a recently revealed NSA surveillance program involving the collection of almost all Americans’ phone call records. But strong opposition to the controversial counter-terrorism initiative appears to be rapidly mounting among lawmakers in Washington.

At a House Judiciary Committee hearing on Wednesday, officials from the Justice Department, NSA, FBI, and Director of National Intelligence’s Office were given a severe grilling about the scope of the surveillance programs exposed last month by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. Of particular focus was the secret interpretation of the Patriot Act that has enabled the government to collect hundreds of millions, possibly billions, of phone call logs on a daily basis. Last month, the Guardian revealed a court order demanding that a business subsidiary of Verizon turn over all of its phone records over a three-month period. It was later reported by the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal that this program has been ongoing for seven years and also gathers data on all calls processed by AT&T, Sprint, and Bell South.

Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., took the opportunity Wednesday to rebuke the panel of government officials over the revelations. “It’s clear to me that we have a very serious violation of the law,” Conyers said. “I feel very uncomfortable about aggregated metadata on hundreds of millions of Americans, everybody, including every member of Congress and every citizen who has a phone in the United States of America. This is unsustainable, it’s outrageous, and must be stopped immediately.”

Deputy Attorney General James Cole, representing the DoJ, looked at times flustered and taken aback by the criticism. But he countered by making the case that the surveillance was subject to oversight from all branches of government and had been authorized by the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.

Cole’s argument, however, didn’t seem to cut it with members of the committee. Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., who was one of the original authors of the Patriot Act in 2001, said the way a section of the law had been interpreted to justify the phone surveillance made a “mockery of the legal standard.” In a terse exchange with Cole, Sensenbrenner went on to threaten that the Patriot Act may not be renewed by Congress when it is due to expire in 2015. “You have to change how you operate, otherwise you’re not going to have it anymore,” he said.

Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y.; Ted Poe, R-Texas; Robert Scott, D-Va.; and Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., also waded in with staunch criticism of the phone records program, questioning its constitutionality. “This program has gone off the tracks legally and needs to be reined in,” Lofgren said. Nadler added that the surveillance was an “abuse of the statue, an abuse of civil liberties, and abuse of privacy.”

Before long, it will fall to the courts to decide whether the NSA’s phone records snooping has indeed violated the Fourth Amendment, which protects against unreasonable searches and seizures. A growing number of legal challenges are being pursued in different states. In California on Tuesday, a diverse coalition of 19 groups representing about 900,000 people launched the latest lawsuit, which is demanding an end to what it calls an “unconstitutional program of dragnet electronic surveillance.”

All of this action will feel like vindication to NSA whistle-blower Snowden, who revealed the mass phone records grab to the Guardian on the grounds that he believed the program was operating unlawfully. Snowden was criticized briefly by officials at the hearing Wednesday for releasing the secret documents, but his actions also received some indirect praise from the lawmakers.

“I don’t like him at all,” said Rep. Poe, “but we wouldn’t know what was going on if he hadn’t told us.”