Lawmakers Blast Intelligence Officials Over PRISM

US House Judiciary Committee hearing on PATRIOT Act
US House Judiciary Committee hearing on PATRIOT Act

In a preliminary effort to get to the bottom of things, Intelligence officials were taken to task this week during a House Judiciary Committee oversight hearing on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

Mass collection of telephony metadata is permitted under Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act; PRISM uses Section 702 of the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, as modified by the 2008 FISA Amendments Act (FAA), to add web metadata from companies like Facebook and Google to the mix. During the hearing, members of both parties harshly criticized the National Security Agency, the Justice Department, the FBI and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence over the application of the Acts as far outstripping how they were originally envisioned.

“We never, at any point during this debate, approved the type of unchecked, sweeping surveillance of United States citizens employed by our government in the name of fighting the war on terrorism”, said committee ranking member John Conyers (D-Mich.), according to a report in the Washington Post. He went on to add that the practice is “unsustainable, it’s outrageous and must be stopped immediately.”

James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.) raised the specter of repealing Section 215 entirely - even though he was an original sponsor of the PATRIOT Act. “You have to change how you operate Section 215, and if you don’t, then in a year and a half or two years you’re going to lose it”, he said.

Deflecting an insistence from Deputy Attorney General James Cole that PRISM could be akin to a Grand Jury proceeding, Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) retorted, reported by American Spectator, that “I believe this is totally unprecedented and an abuse of the statute and you can’t give me an example [of an equivalent Grand Jury subpoena] because none exists. If you’re collecting information about my telephone whenever I use it, that’s abuse, even if you file it away somewhere.”

Intelligence officials continued to insist that the program operates with heavy oversight by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, and said that PRISM has already disrupted terrorist plots. The FISA Court has so far approved the application of Section 215 and the FISA Amendments Act, the noted.

Director of National Intelligence General Counsel Robert Litt said that, “we agree with the ranking member that we should strive for the maximum possible transparency.” However, he noted that public disclosure of PRISM-based is often precluded because of the classified nature and national security sensitivity if the information at hand.

The hearing this week is far from the end of the debate. A second, classified hearing is being planned to allow further questioning about sensitive intelligence topics.

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