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US Senator Wants to Know: Is the NSA Spying on Congress?

Sen. Bernie Sanders writes letter to Gen. Keith Alexander asking if the agency "has spied" or is "currently spying" on elected government officials

- Jon Queally, staff writer

Sen. Bernie Sanders has a simple question for the NSA. (AP Photo)Perhaps if the documented mis-truths spoken by General Keith Alexander, director of the National Security Agency, had not been so flagrant or if the public remained in the dark about how the spy agency has spied on the elected leaders of our own foreign allies, the idea of a U.S. Senator demanding to know if the NSA has used its surveillance powers to spy on U.S. lawmakers would be met with some degree of shock.

"Has the NSA spied, or is the NSA currently spying, on members of Congress or other American elected officials?"

However, given what is now known about the NSA's clandestine programs and the habit of Gen. Alexander, as well as Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, to skirt the truth when it comes to Congress, a letter from Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) on Friday seems down right logical, as opposed to out of place.

"I am writing today to ask you one very simple question," wrote Sanders in the letter addressed to Gen. Alexander. "Has the NSA spied, or is the NSA currently spying, on members of Congress or other American elected officials?"

In order to be specific, Sanders clarified, "'Spying' would include gathering metadata on calls made from official or personal phones, content from websites visited or emails sent, or collecting any other data from a third party not made available to the general public in the regular course of business."

Following up on the letter, the Guardian's Spencer Ackerman reached out to the Senator's office, reporting:

Asked if Sanders meant the collection of legislators’ and officials’ phone data alongside every other American’s or the deliberate targeting of those officials by the powerful intelligence agency, spokesman Jeff Frank said: “He’s referring to either one.”

The NSA did not immediately return a request for comment. Hours after Sanders sent his letter, the office of the director of national intelligence announced that the Fisa court on Friday renewed the domestic phone records bulk collection for another 90 days. 

Sanders’ question is a political minefield for the NSA, and one laid as Congress is about to reconvene for the new year. Among its agenda items is a bipartisan, bicameral bill that seeks to abolish the NSA’s ability to collect data in bulk on Americans or inside the United States without suspicion of a crime or a threat to national security. Acknowledgement that it has collected the communications records of American lawmakers and other officials is likely to make it harder for the NSA to argue that it needs such broad collection powers to defend against terrorism.

Civil liberties and tech groups are planning a renewed lobbying push to pass the bill, called the USA Freedom Act, as they hope to capitalize on a White House review panel that last month recommended the NSA no longer collect so-called metadata, but rely on phone companies to store customer data for up to two years, which is longer than they currently store it.

Sanders himself has introduced legislation designed to curtail the ability of the NSA to spy on U.S. citizens both domestically and those traveling or communicating abroad, including putting stricter limits on powers now used by the NSA and FBI to secretly track telephone calls by millions of innocent Americans who are not suspected of any wrongdoing.

Sanders’ bill also would put an end to open-ended court orders, like the kind that were renewed today, that have resulted in wholesale data mining by the NSA and FBI. Instead, the government would be required to provide reasonable suspicion to justify searches for each record or document that it wants to examine.

On the question of the NSA actually spying on members of Congress, and not likely alone in his curiosity, Sen. Sanders indicated he looked forward to Alexander's "prompt" response to his request.

The complete letter follows:

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