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Clash Over NSA Spy Programs on Capitol Hill

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call
Mueller, the director of the FBI, was on the Hill on Thursday to brief lawmakers on surveillance programs that were recently made public.

The FBI director said the disclosures made by Edward Snowden, the NSA contractor who has admitted to leaking details about the NSA surveillance, did “significant harm” to national security. Although Mueller would not comment on details of the bureau’s ongoing investigation into Snowden, he said the FBI is doing all it can to hold him responsible.

Senate Intelligence Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., told reporters that she is looking at moving legislation that would “limit or prevent” contractors like Snowden from “handling highly classified technical data.”

Several members of the Judiciary panel, however, were skeptical of the administration’s justifications for the broad scope of its surveillance activities.

Wisconsin Republican Jim Sensenbrenner, who had a hand in authoring the Patriot Act, noted that the authority within the law that the NSA is using was intended to allow for data collection on foreigners who are the targets of an authorized terrorism investigation, along with any U.S. citizens who are in touch with them. He questioned how that provision could be used as a means for gathering information on Americans who don’t fall into that category.

Mueller responded that the administration believes that the wide swathes of data it has been collecting meet relevance requirements within that section of the law, a point which several members challenged.

The reasoning makes a “mockery” of the relevance requirement, said New York Democrat Jerrold Nadler. “If everything in the world is relevant, then there’s no meaning to that word.”

Mueller also made the point that federal agencies are gathering only the dates and times of calls and the locations from which they were made. The Supreme Court, the director said, has held that such records do not fall under the Fourth Amendment’s privacy protections.

“We tend to confuse that which is covered by the Fourth Amendment with that which is not covered by the Fourth Amendment,” he said.

Nadler, however, noted that the Supreme Court’s ruling was from a case in the 1970s involving phone bills, and might not apply to modern metadata.

During an exchange with Conyers, Mueller noted that prior to the 9/11 attacks, intelligence officials had been monitoring Saudi Arabian national Khalid al-Mihdhar — one of the hijackers in the attack on the Pentagon — but lost track of him. Agents were also aware of an al-Qaida safehouse in Yemen with a phone number, but didn’t know who might have called. With today’s authorities, Mueller said, the agencies could have discovered that al-Mihdhar had called the safehouse from San Diego.

Using that information to detain al-Mihdhar or any of his co-conspirators could have hurt their plot, Mueller said. “The simple fact of their detention could have derailed the plan,” he said.

Alexander said he tried to address lawmakers’ concerns about greater transparency to reassure Americans about the surveillance programs. He described for lawmakers a review process under way intended to find ways to provide the public with more information about the surveillance, so that “they can understand the value of these programs in saving American lives.”

He also said the government owes U.S. citizens statistics about how effective the programs are.

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