July 17, 2013, 4:00 PM — The U.S. National Security Agency and Department of Justice exceeded their legal authority to conduct surveillance when collecting the telephone records of millions of U.S. residents, several U.S. lawmakers said Wednesday.
Several members of the U.S. House of Representatives Judiciary Committee, both Republicans and Democrats, ripped into representatives of the DOJ and the U.S. intelligence community for their collection of U.S. phone call records, saying the bulk collection violates Patriot Act restrictions that limit surveillance to information relevant to an antiterrorism investigation.
Representative John Conyers Jr., a Michigan Democrat, called on the agencies to stop the data collection program.
"We never, at any point in this debate, have approved the type of unchecked, sweeping surveillance of United States citizens employed by our government," he said during a hearing on the NSA. "If the government cannot provide a clear, public explanation for how its program is consistent with the statute, it must stop collecting this information immediately."
Other committee members said they will look for ways to amend the Patriot Act to stop the NSA's collection of U.S. telephone records. Even without more immediate changes in the law, Congress isn't likely to reauthorize the business-records collection provision in the Patriot Act when it expires in late 2015, unless the NSA scales back its surveillance, said Representative Jim Sensenbrenner, a Wisconsin Republican and author of the original Patriot Act.
"Unless you realize you've got a problem, that [provision] is not going to be renewed," Sensenbrenner told NSA and DOJ officials. "There are not the votes in the House of Representatives ... and then you're going to lose the business-record access provision of the Patriot Act entirely. It's got to be changed, and you have to change how you operate .... otherwise in a year-and-a-half, you're not going to have it anymore."
The bulk collection of U.S. phone records has made "a mockery" of the Patriot Act's relevancy limits, Sensenbrenner said.
Several lawmakers questioned how the NSA and DOJ could view all U.S. phone records as relevant to a terrorism investigation.
"The problem, obviously, from what we're hearing is that everything in the world is relevant," said Representative Jerrold Nadler, a New York Democrat. "You're disregarding the statute entirely."
The bulk collection of U.S. phone records is necessary for later searches, said James Cole, deputy attorney general at the DOJ. The phone records and a related Internet communications surveillance program have helped U.S. authorities in dozens of terrorism cases, officials said.
"If you're looking for the needle in the haystack, you have to have the entire haystack to look through, but we're not allowed to look through that haystack willy-nilly," Cole said.