NSA won't say whether it spies on Congress
January 4th, 2014
05:04 PM ET
12 months ago

NSA won't say whether it spies on Congress

Washington (CNN) - Congress is just like everyone else. That's the message the National Security Agency has for Sen. Bernie Sanders.

The independent senator from Vermont sent a letter to the agency Friday, asking whether it has or is "spying" on members of Congress and other elected American officials.


The NSA provided a preliminary response Saturday that said Congress has "the same privacy protections as all U.S. persons."

"NSA's authorities to collect signals intelligence data include procedures that protect the privacy of U.S. persons. Such protections are built into and cut across the entire process. Members of Congress have the same privacy protections as all U.S. persons," said the agency in a statement obtained by CNN.

The response goes on to promise the agency will continue to work with Congress on the issues - without ever addressing the senator's real question.

Sanders defines "spying" in his letter as "gathering metadata on calls made from official or personal phones, content from websites visited or e-mails sent, or collecting any other data from a third party not made available to the general public in the regular course of business."

The NSA would say nothing more, except that it is further reviewing the letter.

"We will continue to work to ensure that all Members of Congress, including Sen. Sanders, have information about NSA's mission, authorities, and programs to fully inform the discharge of their duties," read the statement.

Attorney General Eric Holder similarly deflected answering the same question at a congressional hearing last summer, telling Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Illinois, that the NSA had no "intent" to spy on Congress, but the issue was better discussed in private.

The intelligence community has faced heated criticism from the right and left in 2013 after Edward Snowden's leaks, and the intensity has continued fiercely in 2014.

On Thursday, the New York Times and the Guardian published scathing editorials that slammed the "violations" Snowden's leaks revealed and advocated a presidential pardon for him.

Among those charges was the notion that James Clapper Jr., the director of National Intelligence, lied to Congress while testifying last March that the NSA was not collecting data on millions of Americans.

National Intelligence was quick to push back, with a letter to the editor from by general counsel Robert Litt, published in the New York Times on Saturday.

"As a witness to the relevant events and a participant in them, I know that allegation is not true," writes Litt, explaining that Clapper misunderstood the question, but couldn't publicly correct his mistake "because the program involved was classified."

"This incident shows the difficulty of discussing classified information in an unclassified setting and the danger of inferring a person's state of mind from extemporaneous answers given under pressure."

Litt said that Clapper was "surprised and distressed" when he was informed by staff that he gave a misleading answer after the testimony.

–CNN's Evan Perez contributed to this report.


Filed under: Bernie Sanders • Congress • NSA
soundoff (153 Responses)
  1. Rick McDaniel

    That's because they DO........BIG TIME........because Obama uses them to spy for him, against his political opposition. Nixon was forced to resign.........Obama is given a pass for the exact same thing.

    January 4, 2014 05:14 pm at 5:14 pm |
  2. Kirk

    Duh. Yes, it does.

    There is a fix for that.

    January 4, 2014 05:18 pm at 5:18 pm |
  3. stardot

    Of course they do – how do you think Obama he gets his way? He collects dirt on everyone. Just ask Chief Justce John Roberts.

    January 4, 2014 05:20 pm at 5:20 pm |
  4. cettel22

    Here is the full emailed reply from NSA via HufPo's Matt Sledge at 2:16PM Saturday afternoon, 4 January:

    "NSA's authorities to collect signals intelligence data include procedures that protect the privacy of U.S. persons. Such protections are built into and cut across the entire process. Members of Congress have the same privacy protections as all U.S. persons. NSA is fully committed to transparency with Congress. Our interaction with Congress has been extensive both before and since the media disclosures began last June. We are reviewing Sen. Sanders's letter now, and we will continue to work to ensure that all Members of Congress, including Sen. Sanders, have information about NSA's mission, authorities, and programs to fully inform the discharge of their duties."

    If Bernie isn't just self-promoting here, then he will go on the warpath, because the NSA now clearly is acting like it's at war against democracy. Sanders has enough power as a U.S. Senator to be able to do real harm to both Keith Alexander and Barack Obama unless they come clean and answer the question that Sanders has asked. If Sanders doesn't press the matter all the way, he was just grandstanding. (The alternative, that NSA has blackmail against him, is far less likely: Bernie's public record is long, and is thus far spotless, though he has enemies who wish it weren't.)

    January 4, 2014 05:27 pm at 5:27 pm |
  5. stardot

    No responses – what a shocker as you censor opinion contrary to your leftest bent.

    January 4, 2014 05:29 pm at 5:29 pm |
  6. cettel22

    Here is the complete emailed reply from NSA via HufPo's Matt Sledge at 2:16PM Saturday afternoon, 4 January:

    "NSA's authorities to collect signals intelligence data include procedures that protect the privacy of U.S. persons. Such protections are built into and cut across the entire process. Members of Congress have the same privacy protections as all U.S. persons. NSA is fully committed to transparency with Congress. Our interaction with Congress has been extensive both before and since the media disclosures began last June. We are reviewing Sen. Sanders's letter now, and we will continue to work to ensure that all Members of Congress, including Sen. Sanders, have information about NSA's mission, authorities, and programs to fully inform the discharge of their duties."

    If Bernie isn't just self-promoting here, then he will go on the warpath, because the NSA now clearly is acting like it's at war against democracy. Sanders has enough power as a U.S. Senator to be able to do real harm to both Keith Alexander and Barack Obama unless they come clean and answer the question that Sanders has asked. If Sanders doesn't press the matter all the way, he was just grandstanding. (The alternative, that NSA has blackmail against him, is far less likely: Bernie's public record is long, and is thus far spotless, though he has enemies who wish it weren't.)

    January 4, 2014 05:29 pm at 5:29 pm |
  7. TommyBoyJr

    Bernie, the NSA is not only monitoring everything you do at home, all of the offices, meeting rooms, chambers, lunch rooms and bathrooms are monitored also.
    That is how they caught Snowden before he went rogue.

    January 4, 2014 05:47 pm at 5:47 pm |
  8. Pelosi

    Hey Barry wake up they just do not spy on Republicans which would be ok with you and what you voted for you fool

    January 4, 2014 05:52 pm at 5:52 pm |
  9. Vence

    That is when the snake bites it's own tail! LOL.

    January 4, 2014 06:01 pm at 6:01 pm |
  10. Anonymous

    Frankly, I don't care if the NSA is "spying" on "elected officials" including Senators and Representatives.
    All this huffing and puffing because a traitor revealed damaging information about what used to be
    hailed as "Bush has kept us safe" commentary from the likes of Cheney, etc.

    Bush did sign the Patriot Act, he also used illegal wiretapping, and signed a "Memorandum" allowing
    Telcos to conceal activities. Why is it so different now?
    We are still being kept safe, as is possible, and now all of a sudden, it hits the fan.

    Companies follow people's buying habits and invade our computers with "ads" they think will entice us
    to buy certain items. That is annoying and an invasion of privacy. What goes out there, stays out
    there. Anyone complaining? Didn't think so.

    So, grow up people, and thank those who work to keep America safe.

    January 4, 2014 06:02 pm at 6:02 pm |
  11. Alex

    From information declassified by the administration, some NSA employees have voluntarily admitted that they have spied on their former lovers or spouses (they call it LOVINT in their parlance). Could the administration tell us whether any employee has admitted or was caught spying on a politician? What comfort do we have that such spying does not occur. I am curious to know.

    January 4, 2014 06:06 pm at 6:06 pm |
  12. Thomas

    Why not ?

    January 4, 2014 06:13 pm at 6:13 pm |
  13. Jamie M

    The NSA spying on Congress? Congress is the only group that SHOULD be spied upon.

    January 4, 2014 06:28 pm at 6:28 pm |
  14. gyvillar

    The CNA is also installing PC and top computers technoligies in Equateur. Which it is very peculiar after the NSA was whatching and tracking France and Europ. "Ecuador" is a small country with people who lhas very low level of knowledges in technology. What are they planning next in this small country of South America controlled by friends of Raul Castro ?

    January 4, 2014 06:33 pm at 6:33 pm |
  15. Patriot

    We need to abolish the NSA and dismantle the spy network which is far more a threat our republic than the terrorists they claim to protect us.

    January 4, 2014 06:35 pm at 6:35 pm |
  16. Topper

    Absolute corruption. Let the black mailing begin!

    January 4, 2014 06:38 pm at 6:38 pm |
  17. CALIFORNIA

    They not only spy on Congress but the White House also. Do people actually think J Edgar didn't 50+ years ago?

    January 4, 2014 06:41 pm at 6:41 pm |
  18. rs

    Given the rampant anti-Americanism on display by the GOP, they ought to be spying on Congress.

    January 4, 2014 06:46 pm at 6:46 pm |
  19. Anonymous

    Who wants to touch this one? Not me said everyone.

    January 4, 2014 06:49 pm at 6:49 pm |
  20. sabo

    With obamas protege (susan rice)that he has so conveniently placed in the nsa he can litterally now
    Fix elections by using nsa to spy and dig up dirt on his opponent s.
    This guy makes richard nixon look like a school kid.

    January 4, 2014 06:58 pm at 6:58 pm |
  21. Sniffit

    Shouldn't have said that! Bye bye NSA !

    January 4, 2014 06:59 pm at 6:59 pm |
  22. Smitty

    If they aren't they should be !!! Geez you just cant make this stuff up.

    January 4, 2014 07:01 pm at 7:01 pm |
  23. Todd

    The "metadata" collection has NEVER been shown to have been the main factor in stopping a terrorist attack in the United States. Multiple judges have ruled this to be the case after their thorough review of evidence presented by the Federal government (in defense of collection of metadata). The NSA has "gone rogue" and it's broken beyond repair. NSA leaders have repeatedly been caught lying UNDER OATH to Congress and federal investigators. They simply can't be trusted any longer. The NSA should be broken up and it's most vital functions can be split up between the CIA, FBI, and Secret Service......

    January 4, 2014 07:04 pm at 7:04 pm |
  24. Badgerbyte

    One would be seriously naïve not to think any ego driven human regardless of professional or political station in life would exploit this technology for Political, Military and/or Judicial expediency and we the people should be very sensitive to this, hyper sensitive to this. Let’s face it, embarrassing and incriminating events in one’s personal life would trump the good of hundreds of millions to avoid professional and personal devastation. Knowing human beings and power this is kind of a ridiculous question. Ask your kids.

    January 4, 2014 07:07 pm at 7:07 pm |
  25. moron

    So what was their conclusion for the Congresscritters from Minnesota? Cheated to win. Check. Uh, I won't go there on the next one.

    January 4, 2014 07:17 pm at 7:17 pm |
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