The National Security Agency won't deny that it may be spying on members of Congress, informing Sen. Bernie Sanders that the agency can't tell him whether it snooped on his metadata because searching to find out would be illegal.
The Vermont Independent sent a letter earlier this month to NSA head Gen. Keith Alexander asking, "Has the NSA spied, or is the NSA currently spying, on members of Congress or other American elected officials?"
"'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," Sen. Sanders specified.
The following day, the NSA issued a preliminary response to media in which the agency did not deny that it may be spying on members of Congress, saying they "have the same privacy protections as all US persons."
In his letter of response to Sen. Sanders dated Jan. 10 and released Tuesday, Alexander continues to leave open the possibility that the NSA is spying on American elected officials, writing, "We firmly believe... that the telephony metadata collection program is lawful."
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While Alexander's letter states that "Nothing NSA does can fairly be characterized as 'spying on members of Congress or other American elected officials,'" it also states that the NSA cannot even look to see if it has collected telephone metadata on members of Congress because that would be illegal:
"...[T]his telephone metadata program incorporates extraordinary controls to protect Americans' privacy interests. Among those protections is the condition that NSA can query the metadata only based on phone numbers reasonably suspected to be associated with specific foreign terrorist groups. For that reason, NSA cannot lawful search to determine if any records NSA has received under the program have included metadata of the phone calls of any member of Congress, other American elected officials, or any other American without that predicate."
Responding to Alexander's letter, Sanders warned that the vast amount of data the NSA is now known to scoop up should spark limits on its surveillance powers.
"The NSA is collecting enormous amounts of information. They know about the phone calls made by every person in this country, where they’re calling, who they’re calling and how long they’re on the phone. Let us not forget that a mere 40 years ago we had a president of the United States who completely disregarded the law in an effort to destroy his political opponents. In my view, the information collected by the NSA has the potential to give an unscrupulous administration enormous power over elected officials," Sen. Sanders said.
"Clearly we must do everything we can to protect our country from the serious potential of another terrorist attack but we can and must do so in a way that also protects the constitutional rights of the American people and maintains our free society," Sanders added.