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Washington – Months after once secret National Security Agency surveillance programs came to light, U.S. Sen. Al Franken said Americans are still in the dark about the clandestine monitoring of their phone calls, e-mails and Internet search data.
The U.S. government has not revealed how many people had their information collected under the programs and how much of that information has been actively reviewed by government officials, and not merely collected for databases.
That troubles Franken, who’s proposing legislation that would shed light on the scope of NSA’s surveillance.
Documents leaked by now infamous contract employee Edward Snowden over the summer revealed that the NSA has been collecting the phone records of millions of Americans using secret court orders and vast quantities of Web data through a program called PRISM.
“Americans still have no way of knowing whether the government is striking the right balance between privacy and security — or whether their privacy is being violated,” Franken said during a Senate hearing on government surveillance Wednesday. “There needs to be more transparency.”
But a high-ranking government lawyer on Wednesday told Franken that his proposed bill could have the unintended effect of subjecting even more Americans to invasion of privacy.
In order to determine how many Americans have been swept up in the NSA’s dragnet surveillance, analysts would have to dive even deeper into data, bringing up more information about individuals than typically is done now, said Robert Litt, general counsel for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.
Wednesday’s hearing, chaired by Franken, also brought privacy advocates and a representative from Google Inc. to Capitol Hill.
Google offered support for Franken’s legislation, which would lift gag orders on companies and allow them to report information about data requests they get from the government.
Litt said that allowing companies to disclose the requests they receive would give terrorists an advantage. They’d gravitate to companies that receive no requests, he said, and then move along when they saw that the government had begun to monitor them.
Richard Salgado, Google’s director of law enforcement and information security matters, said the company recognizes the threats the U.S. faces, but condemned the methods the government has employed.
Google recently learned that surveillance agencies covertly lifted data from its internal network, as part of its clandestine data-mining program.
“The current lack of transparency about the nature of government surveillance in democratic countries … undermines the freedoms most citizens cherish,” Salgado said.
In sharp contrast
Franken has made privacy issues his calling card during his time on Capitol Hill, but he has plenty of company on the government surveillance issue, from both chambers of Congress.
House and Senate lawmakers have introduced nearly 30 bills to rein in NSA spying, increase transparency, or rework the secret court process that sanctioned these programs.
In the Senate, Franken’s bill occupies the middle ground.
The Senate Intelligence Committee, charged with oversight of the surveillance programs, advanced legislation introduced by its chairwoman, California Democrat Dianne Feinstein, that would allow for continued collection of phone, e-mail and Internet communication records.
Another bill, introduced by Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, would rein in the NSA’s surveillance programs by explicitly banning the collection of Americans’ phone calls. It would amend the Patriot Act to halt bulk collection of other forms of communication.
Franken said the Obama administration has taken “good steps in good faith to address this problem” but that immediate and ongoing congressional oversight is needed.
“There is no question that the American people need more information about these programs,” Franken said. “For democracy to work, its citizens have to have at least a basic amount of information about this surveillance.”
Corey Mitchell is a correspondent in the Star Tribune Washington Bureau.