Congress

Trump administration shows up to USA Freedom hearing without answers to key questions about data collection

Mike Lee threatens monthly hearings after Justice Department remains not responsive to letter

Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, suggested the Senate may need monthly hearings on FISA authorities. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Senators expressed their displeasure Wednesday with the Trump administration’s inability to answer questions about the National Security Agency’s collection of call data records at a Judiciary Committee hearing. 

And one senator went so far as to suggest monthly hearings on foreign intelligence surveillance powers.

Republican Sen. Mike Lee of Utah and Democratic Sen. Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont — who were among the leaders of the 2015 effort known as the USA Freedom Act that narrowed the old bulk data collection program — wrote to the Justice Department and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence back in December 2018 seeking answers about challenges with the new program.

Among the questions were what the administration was doing to deal with incidents of over-collection reported by the National Security Agency. The senators followed up in July.

“Despite not answering our questions, the government is now requesting a permanent reauthorization of all of the authorities granted in USA Freedom, including the CDR program,” Leahy said Wednesday.

But Deputy Assistant Attorney General Brad Wiegmann showed up to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday without a responsive letter.

“We now have a draft response to the letters. You will have it this week. I was hoping I could bring it to the hearing, but you will have it this week without fail,” Wiegmann said.

Wiegmann explained that “a significant portion of the delay was due to the administration developing a position on this,” particularly related to whether to seek reauthorization of the call data records program, which is currently suspended. The administration made a determination on the proposed path forward in August.

“This is November, right?” Judiciary Chairman Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., interjected.

A variety of surveillance authorities expire on Dec. 15, and the Trump administration is seeking a permanent authorization.

“You still had many months past the issuance of the policy and today, so perhaps, Mr. Chairman, the only way for us to do this is to have monthly hearings so that we can stay in contact on this,” Lee said. “And I say that in dead seriousness. We’re not messing around here. These are the privacy rights and the constitutional rights of the American people.”

“We represent them, and we don’t appreciate a nearly one year delay that is not warranted,” Lee said. “It adds deeply to my suspicion.”

Leahy said that without answers, senators would be, “legislating in the dark,” as they approach the reauthorization debate, which may coincide with showdowns over both impeachment and federal spending.

Leahy and Lee were not alone in having questions, and the Justice Department was not alone in not really having clear answers.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the ranking Democrat on Judiciary, asked Susan Morgan of the NSA if the call detailed record program has provided any information, “that resulted in the discovery of a previously unknown terrorist plot.”

Morgan, perhaps predictably, said she could not answer the question in an open setting. Feinstein, a former chairwoman of the Intelligence Committee, was not keen on that.

“You want the program to be reauthorized ... we have to have the reason to reauthorize,” Feinstein said. “The reason is, is there a product.”

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