WASHINGTON -- Reports that the National Security Agency is collecting the phone logs of millions of U.S. Verizon customers may have hit with a boom Wednesday night, prompting concerns of government overreach and infringements on civil liberties -- but don't expect Congress to do anything about it.
On Capitol Hill, some lawmakers expressed immediate alarm to news that a FISA court had granted a request for an "ongoing, daily basis" collection of call data, as reported by The Guardian. But those with the authority to take action moved first to vigorously defend the program, calling it routine.
"I read intelligence carefully, and I know that people are trying to get to us," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee. "This is to ferret this out before it happens. It's called protecting America."
She handed out letters she and Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), the top Republican on the committee, wrote to their colleagues in 2010 and 2011 explaining how the program worked, and urging that they support it. Congress did so.
"This is nothing particularly new," Chambliss said. "Every member of the United States Senate has been advised of this, and to my knowledge we have not had any citizen who has registered a complaint relative to the gathering of this information."
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said that Congress should take another look at the law, but suggested the outcry by some was not warranted. "Right now I think everyone should just calm down and understand this isn't anything that's brand new," he said.
The Obama administration, likewise, sought to defend the program on Thursday morning by noting that it had been in place for some time and cleared by other elected officials.
"As we have publicly stated before, all three branches of government are involved in reviewing and authorizing intelligence collection under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act," said a senior administration official. "Congress passed that act and is regularly and fully briefed on how it is used, and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court authorizes such collection."
The nothing-to-see-here approach adopted by the administration and top senators may have stood in contrast to the initial outrage expressed over the Guardian report. But debates over domestic surveillance have always resulted in scattered political alliances. National security hawks are unapologetic in their support.
"I’m a Verizon customer," Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said during an appearance on Fox News. "I don’t mind Verizon turning over records to the government if the government is going to make sure that they try to match up a known terrorist phone with somebody in the United States."
Libertarians and liberals, meanwhile, tend to be the vocal opponents, arguing that the government has invaded the privacy of Americans under the guise of combating nebulous national security threats. On Thursday, those same voices were offering those same criticisms.
"I have had significant concerns about the intelligence community over-collecting information about Americans’ telephone calls, emails, and other records," said Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), who has tried to change the law, along with Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.)
"The administration owes the American public an explanation of what authorities it thinks it has," said Udall.
This time, however, they were bolstered by other lawmakers who have grown more alarmed at the reach of the executive branch, be it with the administration's aggressive leak investigations, drone strikes or the recent IRS scandal.
"The fact that all of our calls are being gathered in that way -- ordinary citizens throughout America -- to me is troubling and there may be some explanation, but certainly we all as citizens are owed that, and we're going to be demanding that," said Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), noting that he, too, was a Verizon customer.
But even with new lawmakers beginning to air their concerns, the actual legislative dynamics seemed stacked against their favor.
When the Patriot Act, which authorized this type of surveillance, was up for reauthorization in 2006, 10 senators voted against it. This past December, an amendment that required the NSA to reveal the number of Americans surveilled was shot down by a 43 to 52 vote. Another amendment that would have applied more transparency to the program failed 37 to 54.
In 2009, meanwhile, Feingold and Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) introduced an amendment during the markup of the Patriot Act reauthorization that would have revised Section 215 of the law so that an "individual’s sensitive personal records can only be issued where there is at least some tangential connection to terrorism." That amendment was rejected as well.
On Thursday morning, Durbin was in a told-you-so type of mood. He said the breadth and depth of the NSA's surveillance that had been revealed by The Guardian was legal, and while the Senate could change the law, "it's not going to happen."
That sentiment was echoed by a top Democrat in the House who has been critical of the domestic surveillance programs under both President Barack Obama and former President George W. Bush. The member, who spoke on condition of anonymity, noted that at least officials in the current administration got clearance from the FISA court, but said the news was still disturbing and "unfortunately lawful."
As for whether there would be any political will to change the law: "I doubt it," the member said. "Have you looked at the House of Representatives lately?"
Watch the full Feinstein-Chambliss press conference below:
UPDATE (7:45 p.m): NBC News tweeted Thursday evening that under the Patriot Act, data from all phone records within the U.S. has been collected by the government.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this piece said four senators voted against the reauthorization of the Patriot Act in 2006. They actually voted against the reauthorization of a specific Patriot Act provision.
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