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US intelligence chief has 30 days to reveal if specific citizens were spied upon

US intelligence chief has 30 days to reveal if specific citizens were spied upon

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James Clapper
James Clapper

In a hearing called to assess current and future national security threats, some of the most prominent members of the US intelligence committee were grilled on how to handle the ongoing leaks from Edward Snowden and criticism of its surveillance efforts. This morning's remarkably hostile Senate hearing pitted Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, FBI head James Comey, and their Congressional supporters against senators who wanted hard, public answers to questions whose answers have been kept ambiguous or under wraps to all but a few officials.

In a series of curt questions, Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR), a longtime surveillance critic, extracted hard promises of information from the NSA, CIA, and FBI. Within 30 days, Clapper has agreed to reveal whether intelligence agencies have ever searched through records for information about specific US citizens. CIA director John Brennan will answer within a week whether the limits of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act apply to his agency. Comey will lay out what burden of proof FBI agents must meet before tracking cellphone location data from either apps or cell towers.

By next month, we're also promised an answer to one of the most important questions in the debate over phone record collection: have intelligence agencies ever needed immediate access to information that was so old cellphone companies would no longer store it? Obama has promised to move the NSA's phone record database to a third party, possibly by asking cellphone companies to store data for longer. But the program's effectiveness is already in question, and so far, we know relatively little about when and how it's actually been used.

"Simply using the metric of plots foiled is not necessarily a way to get at the value of the program."

Today, Senator Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) passionately denounced Obama's decision to move the database to an outside party, something he said would take away a "core government function" without protecting privacy. But others echoed a recent watchdog committee report that found the program both unconstitutional and relatively ineffective. The White House has officially disagreed with the panel's conclusions, and Clapper said that although the program has never actually been necessary to solve a case, it allows the NSA to know if a terrorist has not been communicating with US numbers. "Simply using the metric of plots foiled is not necessarily a way to get at the value of the program."

Following conflicting decisions in lower courts, Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) asked Clapper to officially condone a fast-tracked Supreme Court decision on whether the program itself was legal, cutting off his reference to one of the dozens of cases. Meanwhile, Clapper's official Twitter account tweeted his testimony throughout the hearing:

Unsurprisingly, Snowden himself came up for attack. Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) opened the hearing by steering discussion towards threats worldwide, saying she was concerned that successful anti-terrorism work has created a false sense of security. In response to a question from Susan Collins (R-ME), Defense Intelligence Agency director Michael Flynn said the greatest price of the leaks would likely be "the cost in human lives on tomorrow's battlefields." Clapper himself declined to say whether he thought leaked documents had ended up in Russian hands — a claim Snowden vehemently denies — due to an ongoing investigation. Despite Snowden's prominence in the hearing, his name still eluded both Collins and Mikulski, who respectively referred to him as "Edwin" and "Eric."

Clapper called the leaks "the most massive and most damaging theft of intelligence information in our history." But he backhandedly accepted that the intelligence community should "lean in the direction of transparency," even if it reduced its operating power. As he and others talked about limiting the NSA's power, though, Comey emphasized the FBI's need for CISPA-like cybersecurity legislation that would let companies and government agencies share information about potential online attacks. The balance between liberty and security is far from a settled issue, but Obama has turned much of the debate over to Congress, and today's hearing is likely only a small sign of what's to come.