Agency says it would “further violate” everyone’s privacy if it wasn’t a secret

Source: Steve Watson

The National Security Agency has refused to provide details on its clandestine domestic spying program, as requested by two prominent Senators, suggesting that to do so would violate the privacy of Americans.

Last month Senators Ron Wyden and Mark Udall of the intelligence oversight committee once again asked the NSA to divulge how many innocent Americans have had their communications monitoredunder the expanded Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, counterterrorism powers put into place four years ago.

The expansion of powers in 2008 eliminated the need for the NSA to have probable cause to intercept any American’s phone calls, text messages or emails.

Now Wired Magazine blog DangerRoom has acquired a letter (PDF) from the Inspector General of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, which notes that “NSA leadership agreed that an IG review of the sort suggested would further violate the privacy of U.S. persons.”

The letter, written by I. Charles McCullough, also claims that the NSA, which has as many employees as the FBI and the CIA combined, does not have the man power to collate and reveal such details, and that to attempt to do so would jeopardize the program.

“I defer to [the NSA inspector general’s] conclusion that obtaining such an estimate was beyond the capacity of his office and dedicating sufficient additional resources would likely impede the NSA’s mission,” McCullough wrote.

Senator Wyden responded with a statement Monday, noting “All that Senator Udall and I are asking for is a ballpark estimate of how many Americans have been monitored under this law, and it is disappointing that the Inspectors General cannot provide it.”

“If no one will even estimate how many Americans have had their communications collected under this law then it is all the more important that Congress act to close the ‘back door searches’ loophole, to keep the government from searching for Americans’ phone calls and emails without a warrant,” Wyden added.

Describing the NSA’s response as “disappointing and unsatisfactory,” Legal secrecy expert Steve Aftergood, of the Federation of American Scientists, believes it is unacceptable for any intelligence agency to refuse to address such an “entirely legitimate oversight question.”

“If the FISA Amendments Act is not susceptible to oversight in this way,” Aftergood said, “it should be repealed, not renewed.”

Last year, the NSA tacitly admitted that it has an active domestic spying program when the general counsel testified to a Senate hearing, overseen by Wyden and Udall, that he believes the agency has the authority to track Americans via cell phones.

“There are certain circumstances where that authority may exist,” said Matthew Olsen the Director of The National Counterterrorism Center.

Wyden and Udall have been pressing the NSA for some time to reveal whether or not the agency is collecting sensitive data on Americans such as cell site data, which would allow for tracking the location of anyone using a cell phone in the US.

Along with Congressman Jason Chaffetz (R., Utah), Wyden introduced a joint bill last year that would force any government agency to secure a search warrant and show probable cause before tracking the location of any American.

Wyden has consistently expressed concern that the law relating to surveillance is unclear, and is being “secretly interpreted by the executive branch.”

Last week, Wyden blocked the Senate from a unanimous consent vote on a bill that would extend the FISA for a further five years. He was the only Senator to take action against the proposal, which was secretly approved for a floor vote last month, and would have otherwise passed through a virtually empty Senate chamber without objection.

In his statement, Wyden said he objects to the extension of the law because it does not contain protections against warrantless “back door” searches of Americans.

“I believe that there should be clear rules prohibiting the government from searching through these communications in an effort to find the phone calls or emails of a particular American, unless the government has obtained a warrant or emergency authorization permitting surveillance of that American,” he said.

As a candidate for president in 2008, Barack Obama promised to revisit and revise the rules of FISA to protect Americans’ rights, after he had voted for the bill as a Senator. However, as president, Obama has continued where president Bush left off in calling for extending the legislation and even actively preventing any judicial oversight of the wiretapping program.

The FISA provision, introduced in 2008, was merely a confirmation of activity that government spy agencies, including the NSA, have been engaging in for years.

The ACLU recently released an infographic (below) detailing  how the NSA’s warrantless wiretapping program has grown in gargantuan proportions and now intercepts 1.7 billion US electronic communications every single day. Those communications will soon all be funneled through the top secret $2 billion spy center in the Utah desert, which the NSA has refused to provide Congress with details of.

The surveillance dragnet just got a hell of a lot bigger, and rest assured that while the government says its official targets are “terrorists,” snoops are using these powers to go after Americans exercising their constitutional rights.