Finally, are the sheep waking up?
Bipartisan Backlash Grows Against Domestic Surveillance
WASHINGTON — The Obama administration faced a growing Congressional backlash against the National Security Agency’s domestic surveillance operations on Wednesday, as lawmakers from both parties called for the vast collection of private data on millions of Americans to be scaled back.
During a sometimes contentious hearing of the House Judiciary Committee, Republicans and Democrats told administration officials that they believed the government had exceeded the surveillance authorities granted by Congress, and warned that they were unlikely to be reauthorized in the future.
Representative Jim Sensenbrenner, Republican of Wisconsin, said that no one in Congress believed that the counterterrorism laws enacted since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks were meant to allow for the collection of phone records of virtually everyone in America.
“The government is stockpiling sensitive personal data on a grand scale,” said Representative Ted Deutch, Democrat of Florida. “Intelligence officers, contractors and personnel only need a rubber-stamp warrant from the FISA court to then learn virtually everything there is to know about an American citizen,” he said, referring to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.
While administration officials defended the surveillance during the hearing, several lawmakers said that the data collection was unsustainable, and that Congress would move to either revoke the legislative authorization for the bulk collection now or at least refuse to renew it when it expires in 2015. Mr. Sensenbrenner interrupted James Cole, a deputy attorney general, to say, “Unless you realize you’ve got a problem, that is not going to be renewed.”
Wednesday’s hearing was part of a counteroffensive emerging against the National Security Agency’s domestic surveillance since the scope of the spying operations was exposed by Edward J. Snowden, a former N.S.A. contractor.
A coalition of Silicon Valley companies and civil liberties groups plans to press President Obama on Thursday to disclose more information about the agency’s surveillance operations so that Americans can have a more informed public debate. Much of the controversy involves the agency’s bulk collection of telephone data, which includes which numbers have called other numbers and time and length of calls, but not the content.
In a letter to top administration officials, the group will ask that the government start opening up the surveillance process by allowing companies to publicly disclose the number of secret requests for data they receive from the N.S.A., the number of individuals the requests cover, and whether the requests involve the content of communications or other data, according to a draft of the letter and interviews with officials from the companies and organizations involved.
The group, which includes Apple, Google, Facebook and Twitter, and organizations including the Center for Democracy and Technology, the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the American Civil Liberties Union, urge in their letter that the government publish the same information, and that Congress should enact new legislation mandating greater openness in the surveillance process.
The letter does not demand an end to the domestic surveillance. But it is still significant because it allies the corporations that are directly involved with the government’s surveillance collection with some of the most vocal critics of the administration’s efforts to keep the N.S.A. domestic spying program in the shadows. Microsoft sent a similar letter on its own to Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr.
The coalition letter also comes as momentum is building in Congress to require greater public disclosure on the programs. “I am beginning to see a lot of Republicans fight on this issue,” Representative Jerrold Nadler, a New York Democrat and member of the Judiciary Committee, said in an interview. “I think the situation is extremely fluid, but I know a lot of people are interested in doing something.”
Senator Al Franken, Democrat of Minnesota, said in an interview that he planned to introduce legislation mandating public disclosure along the same lines as the recommendations in the coalition’s letter, while Representative Rick Larsen, a Washington Democrat, said in an interview that he was planning to introduce similar legislation in the House on Thursday.
On Tuesday, Mr. Sensenbrenner and Representative Zoe Lofgren, the California Democrat who is the ranking minority member on the judiciary panel, sent a letter to Mr. Holder and James R. Clapper Jr., the director of national intelligence, also asking that the companies be allowed to disclose more information publicly about government demands for data.
Mr. Sensenbrenner released a letter Wednesday from the Justice Department, defending the scope and the legality of the government’s surveillance operations. The department said that it was necessary for the N.S.A. to collect such large volumes of domestic telephone data to perform the analysis necessary to identify suspected terrorist activity.
Mr. Franken said that he believed the administration now agreed that there needed to be greater public debate and disclosure, even though the White House has continued to defend the secret programs. “I think that if there were greater transparency, Americans would have a better understanding of these programs,” he said.
While prominent Internet companies are pushing for fuller disclosure, some of the nation’s largest telecommunications firms were not willing to sign on, according to several people involved in the coalition. Some of those businesses have previously received legal immunity from Congress for their involvement with the Bush administration’s warrantless wiretapping program, and have close and longstanding ties to the N.S.A.
But the Silicon Valley Internet firms that did sign did so because they are increasingly concerned that the N.S.A. controversy that erupted in the wake of Mr. Snowden’s disclosures could damage their credibility, particularly with customers overseas.
“The commercial issue is whether people around the world are going to trust American Internet companies with their data,” said Andrew McLaughlin, the chief executive of Digg, a social news Web site, and a former White House Internet policy adviser in the Obama administration. “If you are in the government in Germany, you might think twice about using an American company as your cloud partner. You might see American companies not winning those kinds of contracts.”