WASHINGTON, D.C.: Lawmakers on Wednesday (Thursday in Manila) blasted United States (US) intelligence agencies for trampling on privacy rights and vowed to impose limits on the government’s authority to scoop up Americans’ phone records.
At a House Judiciary Committee hearing, members from both parties berated senior officials over the collection of bulk phone data as beyond the limits of the US Constitution as well as legislation adopted by Congress.
“I think that very clearly, this program has gone off the tracks legally,” said Representative Zoe Lofgren of California.
The hearing focused on the government’s far-reaching surveillance activities that have come under intense scrutiny after leaks from a former intelligence contractor, Edward Snowden, who revealed the National Security Agency (NSA) was collecting phone “meta-data” and trawling through Internet traffic to look for terror suspects.
But senior justice and intelligence officials insisted the data mining of phone records was reviewed by a secret court, in line with laws adopted by Congress and only conducted to track down Al-Qaeda-linked militants.
“With these programs and other intelligence activities, we are constantly seeking to achieve the right balance between the protection of national security and the protection of privacy and civil liberties,” Deputy Atty. Gen. James Cole told the committee.
Lawmakers, however, said Congress had amended the post-9/11 Patriot Act to ensure phone or other business records would only be collected on a narrow basis, when government agencies had a specific suspect or threat in mind.
“We amended the Patriot Act to avoid this very same problem,” said John Conyers, the senior-ranking Democrat on the committee, who called the data collection a “serious violation” of the law.
“This is unsustainable, it’s outrageous and must be stopped immediately,” Conyers said.
Venting frustration with the Obama administration’s stance, Republican James Sensenbrenner warned the authority for gathering phone data—known as section 215 of the Patriot Act—would not be renewed unless the government changed its approach.
Administration officials told the committee that the phone data allowed spy agencies and the Federal Bureau of Investigation to track down an associate of Najibullah Zazi, who admitted to plotting to bomb the New York City subway.