Lawmakers blasted the Obama administration for their "secret reinterpretation" of known laws, which they say has effectively "mislead" both the public and their representatives, granting the federal government broad powers to monitor and mine the world's communications.
"We are concerned that by depending on secret interpretations of the Patriot Act that differed from an intuitive reading of the statute, this program essentially relied for years on a secret body of law," writes the group of 26 Senators in a letter sent Thursday.
"This and misleading statements by intelligence officials have prevented our constituents from evaluating the decisions that their government was making, and will unfortunately undermine trust in government more broadly."
Civil liberties groups—who have issued repeated warnings regarding the Patriot Act and the changes to FISA in 2008—may or may not find the lawmakers' surprise convincing given Congress's role in passing both pieces of legislation.
The letter—addressed to Director of National Security, James Clapper—demands that the intelligence chief answer a series of questions on the scale and legal justification for the widespread secret spy campaign recently revealed by the Guardian via documents leaked by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden.
To ensure that an informed discussion on PATRIOT Act authorities can take place, we ask that you direct the Intelligence Community to provide unclassified answers to the following questions:
- How long has the NSA used PATRIOT Act authorities to engage in bulk collection of Americans' records? Was this collection underway when the law was reauthorized in 2006?
- Has the NSA used USA PATRIOT Act authorities to conduct bulk collection of any other types of records pertaining to Americans, beyond phone records'?
- Has the NSA collected or made any plans to collect Americans' cell--site location data in bulk'?
- Have there been any violations of the court orders permitting this bulk collection, or of the rules governing access to these records? If so, please describe these violations.
- Please identify any specific examples of instances in which intelligence gained by reviewing phone records obtained through Section 215 bulk collection proved useful in thwarting a particular terrorist plot.
- Please provide specific examples of instances in which useful intelligence was gained by reviewing phone records that could not have been obtained without the bulk collection authority, if such examples exist.
- Please describe the employment status of all persons with conceivable access to this data, including IT professionals, and detail whether they are federal employees, civilian or military, or contractors.
As their colleagues in the Senate spout false statistics about the efficacy of the dragnet program and denounce Snowden as a "traitor," the coalition behind the letter—which was organized by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.)—admitted in a press statement that this reliance on secret law raises "serious civil liberty concerns and all but removes the public from an informed national security and civil liberty debate."
The Senators signing the letter are: Ron Wyden (D-Or), Mark Udall (D-Co), Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), Patrick Leahy (D-Vt), Mark Kirk (R-Il), Dick Durbin (D-Il), Tom Udall (D-NM), Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), Jon Tester (D-Mt), Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), Dean Heller (R- Nev),Mark Begich (D-Alaska), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt), Patty Murray (D-Wash), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore), Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii), Al Franken (D-Minn), Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), Chris Coons (D-Del), Maria Cantwell (D-Wash), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn), Max Baucus (D-Mont), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass), Martin Heinrich (D-NM), Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisc) and Mike Lee (R-Utah)