Two Democrats on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence say the National Security Agency provided “inaccurate” and “misleading” information to the American public about the government’s vast surveillance operations.
Senators Ron Wyden and Mark Udall sent a letter to NSA Director Gen. Keith Alexander on Monday asking him to make revisions to a set of fact sheets that were released by his agency to quell concerns about domestic surveillance in the wake of leaked documents attributed to former intelligence contractor Edward Snowden earlier this month.
The Guardian newspaper has been publishing top-secret documents provided by Snowden that he says proves the NSA operates secretive spying programs that retain information on United States citizens under Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) and Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act. Snowden claims those two statutes are abused in order to surveil American citizens, an argument Gen. Alexander’s office recently attempted to counter by releasing a four-page set of bullet points outlining what the US government can and can’t do under federal law.
According to Sens. Wyden and Udall, the NSA’s response isn’t in-tune with what they’ve been told of the programs. "We were disappointed to see that this fact sheet contains an inaccurate statement about how the Section 702 authority has been interpreted by the US government," they write Gen. Alexander. "In our judgment this inaccuracy is significant, as it portrays protections for Americans' privacy as being significantly stronger than they actually are."
But while the fact sheets have been made available online, Wyden and Udall can’t explain in their public letter what their allegations are in reference to since the lawmakers’ own knowledge of the clandestine operations are not allowed to be discussed, even among the constituents who elected them to the Senate. Instead, they wrote that they’ve “identified this inaccurate statement in the classified attachment” sent to Alexander.
Elsewhere, the lawmakers rejected the NSA’s claim that, "Any inadvertently acquired communication of or concerning a US person must be promptly destroyed if it is neither relevant to the authorized purpose nor evidence of a crime."
"We believe that this statement is somewhat misleading,” replied the senators, “in that it implies that the NSA has the ability to determine how many American communications it has collected under Section 702, or that the law does not allow the NSA to deliberately search for the records of particular Americans. In fact, the intelligence community has told us repeatedly that it is ‘not reasonably possible to identify the number of people located in the United States whose communications may have been reviewed under the authority’ of the FISA Amendments Act.”
In a tweet sent out Monday evening, Sen. Wyden again said the
FISA fact sheet included a “significant inaccuracy.”
Significant inaccuracy in NSA's FISA fact sheet. It portrays privacy protections as being stronger than they are. http://t.co/MbPcJUF4oc— Ron Wyden (@RonWyden) June 24, 2013
Nowhere does the senators’ response include allegations of any discrepancies in the Section 215 fact sheet, but both Wyden and Udall have raised questions about how the government interprets that provision previously. “We believe most Americans would be stunned to learn the details of how these secret court opinions have interpreted Section 215,” they wrote in a joint letter to Attorney General Eric Holder last year. “As we see it, there is now a significant gap between what most Americans think the law allows and what the government secretly claims the law allows. This is a problem, because it is impossible to have an informed public debate about what the law should say when they public doesn’t know what its government thinks the law says.”
In their letter to Gen. Alexander this week, both Udall and Wyden wrote that they believe the US government should have “broad authorities to investigate terrorism and espionage,” and that it’s possible to “aggressively pursue terrorists without compromising the constitutional rights of ordinary Americans.”
“Achieving this goal depends not just on secret courts and secret congressional hearings, but on informed public debate as well,” they wrote.
But while Sens. Udall and Wyden have been long critical of surveillance powers provided through FISA and the PATRIOT Act, their take on the revelations exposed by Mr. Snowden differs drastically with that of President Barack Obama and many leading figures of his administration. Mr. Obama, Gen. Alexander and Mr. Holder have all defended the practices used by the NSA and say that no constitutional violations occur due to privacy safeguards in place, as have Senate Intelligence Chair Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.).
“I think it’s important to recognize that you can’t have 100 percent security and also then have 100 percent privacy and zero inconvenience,” President Obama said earlier this month.
With respect to Section 702 and Section 215, Obama said, “These are programs that have been authorized by broad bipartisan majorities repeatedly since 2006. And so I think at the onset it is important to understand that your duly elected representatives have been consistently informed on exactly what we’re doing.”
Edward Snowden revealed himself as the contractor responsible for the leaks published by The Guardian less than one week after the paper first began releasing information on the programs. He gave several interviews in Hong Kong before flying to Moscow where he remains today, according to both the US and Russian presidents. The anti-secrecy website WikiLeaks announced Monday that Snowden has asked for asylum from several countries, including Iceland and Ecuador.