WASHINGTON -- Members of Congress on Tuesday expressed growing doubts about the way the country’s top-secret surveillance programs are managed, even as the top legislators from each party voiced confidence in the programs and showed little interest in a public discussion of the issue.
Emerging from an early evening closed-door briefing with officials from the National Security Agency, the Justice Department and the FBI, some members of the House of Representatives said they had more questions than answers about the surveillance programs that sweep up records from phone and Internet accounts belonging to millions of Americans.
“I think what really came out of it is that we need, as Congress, is to move forward and debate the issue,” said Rep. C.A. “Dutch” Ruppersberger of Maryland, the ranking Democrat on the House intelligence committee. “It’s really a debate on how far we go with public safety, and protecting us from terrorist attacks, versus how far we go on the other side and what programs we use to deal with that issue. This is what we do in Congress.”
Rep. Brad Sherman, D-Calif., a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said there “obviously” needs to be more congressional oversight on the telephone surveillance program, under which so-called metadata from cellphone records are surrendered to the FBI and the NSA on a daily basis.
“I did not know a billion records a day were coming under control of the executive branch,” Sherman said.
Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Ga., said that several lawmakers were skeptical about what they were being told about the surveillance programs and the information being collected.
“A lot of skepticism, ironically, from folks that voted in favor of it in the first place,” he said.
The House briefing came hours after eight U.S. senators – six Democrats and two Republicans – introduced legislation that would require the U.S. attorney general to make public secret decisions of the court that grants permission for collection of such records. The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court has rejected only 11 such applications among the more than 30,000 cases it’s considered since it was founded in 1979.
“Americans deserve to know how much information about their private communications the government believes it’s allowed to take under the law,” Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., said in a statement. “There is plenty of room to have this debate without compromising our surveillance sources or methods or tipping our hand to our enemies. We can’t have a serious debate about how much surveillance of Americans’ communications should be permitted without ending secret law.”
Joining him in his effort were Sens. Mike Lee, R-Utah, Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., Dean Heller, R-Nev., Mark Begich, D-Alaska, Al Franken, D-Minn., Jon Tester, D-Mont., and Ron Wyden, D-Ore.
“Alaskans highly value their privacy and their right to privacy,” Begich said. “Our Alaska constitution specifically protects this right from being trampled on while ensuring national security information isn’t at risk.”
But they were met with a torrent of opposition as Senate leaders, as well as much of the rank and file, vigorously defended the programs in a sign of how difficult it would be in Congress to change the law that governs such surveillance.