Sen. Patrick Leahy wasn’t looking for nuance at Wednesday’s hearing about the National Security Agency (NSA) surveillance programs.
The Judiciary Committee hearing was prompted by the slew of leaks the came from former NSA contractor, Edward Snowden, and have stirred the public’s unease over the scope of the agency’s surveillance programs.
Leahy, who recently introduced legislation to rein in these programs, homed in on the NSA’s phone record collection program, which was authorized by the Patriot Act and collects all domestic phone logs.
“If this program is not effective it has to end. So far, I am not convinced by what I’ve seen.”
Vermont’s senior senator set a high bar at the beginning for the panel of four intelligence officials. Based on the evidence the Obama administration has offered, Leahy said, he’s skeptical that the NSA’s bulk phone record collection program needs to exist.
“If this program is not effective it has to end. So far, I am not convinced by what I’ve seen,” Leahy said.
Leahy, who chairs the Judiciary Committee, pressed the officials for two things — a straight answer on how many times the phone records program has been critical to disrupting terrorist plots, and proof that the NSA is serious about holding its own ranks accountable for the Edward Snowden security breach. Snowden, who has been charged by the U.S. with leaking information about NSA surveillance, was granted one year’s asylum in Russia on Thursday.
Leahy made it clear from the hearing’s outset that he’d have little patience for prevarication. “The executive branch has to be a full partner. We need straightforward answers, and I’m concerned we’re not getting them.”
He thanked the intelligence officials for their candor afterward, but during the questioning, Leahy badgered them into giving blunter responses to his questions.
The lineup of intelligence officials at the Judiciary Committee hearing consisted of Deputy Attorney General, James Cole, John Inglis, NSA’s Deputy Director, Robert Litt, a lawyer with the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, and Sean M. Joyce, Deputy Director of the FBI.
The head of the NSA, Gen. Keith Alexander, was absent — he was in Las Vegas to speak at a hacker convention, a point Leahy made mention of more than once.
Leahy began by asking Inglis, “Who at the NSA is taking responsibility for allowing this incredibly damaging security breach to occur?”
Inglis responded that the NSA was investigating the incident to determine if there had been lapses in due diligence.
“Obviously there wasn’t [due diligence],” Leahy interjected. “If a 29-year-old school dropout could come in and take out massive, massive amounts of data, it’s obvious there weren’t controls.”
When Inglis resumed his explanation of what the NSA was doing, in general terms, to look for wrongdoing, Leahy cut his answer short again, asking “How soon will we know who screwed up?”
Inglis replied, “I think that we’ll know over weeks and months precisely what happened and who should then be hold accountable, and we will hold them accountable.”
Vermont’s senior senator also showed irritation with what he described as the Administration’s deliberate conflation of two separate surveillance programs when tabulating how many terrorist plots they’d helped to thwart.
“I don’t think it’s a coincidence when people in government make that comparison, but it needs to stop.”
Leahy took issue, in particular, with the impression he said the administration has given, that the phone records program has helped prevent 54 terrorist plots. He pushed the officials to weigh in on effectiveness of that program, which is authorized under Section 215 of the Patriot Act, in isolation from its other programs, including the overseas electronic communications collection, authorized in Section 702 of the FISA act.
Leahy asked for the exact number of times the phone records program had played a “critical” role in disrupting terrorist plots.
Inglis explained that of the 54 plots, only 13 targeted American sites, and the phone records program played a role in all but one of those. But distilling the importance of its particular role was impossible, Ingles said, because NSA programs work in tandem.
“That’s a very difficult question to answer in so much as that’s not necessarily how these programs work. That’s actually not how these programs work.”
Joyce also jumped, offering a baseball analogy in an effort to push back against Leahy’s insistence on determining whether or not the phone program had been critical to certain attacks. “You have your most valuable player, but you also have the players that hit singles every day.”
Joyce argued that dismantling any part of the NSA surveillance programs would impact the entire intelligence-gathering apparatus. “We need all these tools,” he said. “We must have the dots to connect the dots.”
Leahy appeared unconvinced. “We could have more security if we strip searched everyone who comes in a building, but we’re not going to do that… there are certain areas of our own privacy that we Americans expect and at some point you have to know where the balance is.”
Wednesday’s hearing coincided with a flurry of newly released NSA documents— several declassified by the Obama administration, and the other leaked by Snowden to the Guardian.
Each of the intelligence officials at the hearing professed their commitment to having a “discussion” about NSA’s surveillance tactics and declassifying information to offer assurances to the public about the programs’ checks and balances. But Senator Al Franken (D-Minn.) expressed skepticism about the selectivity with which the Obama Administration has disclosed information in the wake of the Snowden leaks.
“When its ad hoc transparency, that doesn’t engender trust, I think,” Franken said, after asking the panel about its decision to declassify several papers, that might strengthen its case, immediately prior to the hearing.