NSA won't say whether it spies on Congress
January 4th, 2014
05:04 PM ET
10 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. David F.

    That brings up the question if the NSA is also collecting privileged data such as Lawyer/Client Confidentiality information, Doctor/Patient Confidentiality, or even spying on appointed judges (Federal Appeals Judges and U.S. Supreme Court Judges), and using that information to "Blackmail" the judges to rule Court Cases a certain way that this Administration wants them to vote.

    January 4, 2014 11:52 pm at 11:52 pm |
  2. US Citizen

    Clapper lied, and the NSA is out of control. Everyone knows Clapper misled Congress, and now something needs to be done. He should be fired, and the NSA should get back to doing its normal job without lying or braking the law.

    January 5, 2014 12:10 am at 12:10 am |
  3. Dave D

    I couldn't image that such a pathetic person could become President and could deserve so rightfully to be impeached. Our country has lost a large part of it's soul that will never be recovered. No longer will our children have the privacy we had behind closed doors.

    January 5, 2014 01:16 am at 1:16 am |
  4. p. holman

    If anyone needs to be spied on it's Congress. They are either psychotic or deviants.

    January 5, 2014 01:47 am at 1:47 am |
  5. gabi

    Isn't this like Watergate all over again?

    January 5, 2014 01:49 am at 1:49 am |
  6. AirTuan

    The real question should be "Did NSA spy on Romney/associates during the presidential campaign for Obama's benefit?
    Obama's political machine has not shied on any illegal activities that we have known it so far. Watergate II is a high possibility.

    January 5, 2014 02:25 am at 2:25 am |
  7. MacRoach

    And Litt is as big a liar as Clapper. Clapper was given the question a day before the hearing and knew it would be asked. He also admitted the lie with the pretense that he told the least untrue answer he could. His only surprise was when Snowden showed him for what he is and his only distress lies in the fact that now the whole country knows he is an unmitigated liar and needs to be held resposable for it in court. Were it possible, Litt should have to defend him. Both liars of the same ilk.

    January 5, 2014 02:38 am at 2:38 am |
  8. asdf

    the only way cnn gets traffic on its site, is when its linked to drudge report, haha!

    January 5, 2014 03:14 am at 3:14 am |
  9. wodun

    Obama would never misuse the NSA like he did the IRS or DOJ. We know how trustworthy the Obama adminiatration is so we can totally believe what they say, period.

    And if some bad apples did misuse their NSA powers, Obama would only learn about it in the papers just like everyone else.

    January 5, 2014 03:20 am at 3:20 am |
  10. James Scarlet

    "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."
    I bet NSA sent their letter to the editors just five minutes after the said editors finished their editorials, including their correction and some misspelling that the editors need corrected before printing.

    January 5, 2014 03:38 am at 3:38 am |
  11. tom

    Of course they spy on Congress. Just like the Supreme Court. Just like Senior Military Officers.

    And they use that info to control their behavior.

    METADATA? HOGWASH!!! They record the entire conversation and use the "metadata" just like the "Dewey Decimal System" to pull up conversations when they want to use them.

    January 5, 2014 05:29 am at 5:29 am |
  12. pupdog223

    "... writes Litt, explaining that Clapper misunderstood the question... "

    Clapper was given the question well in advance of the hearing. So, perhaps attorney Litt could explain to the nation why he claims that Clapper's answer to the known question was extemporaneous.

    January 5, 2014 06:29 am at 6:29 am |
  13. tcaud

    This is a secret police unit. We're back to the J Edgar Hoover era.

    January 5, 2014 06:41 am at 6:41 am |
  14. traveller

    How can you blackmail your political opponents without having the goods on them? jeez....duh!

    January 5, 2014 07:13 am at 7:13 am |
  15. Robert Moschetti

    Then it does. Unbelievable. Good Bye America. It was all for not.

    January 5, 2014 07:39 am at 7:39 am |
  16. Andros

    Spying on (Republican) members of congress (and their supporters) has been the NSA'a PRIMARY MISSION in this administration.

    With the tools the NSA provides, obama knows exactly what his political enemies are talking about, thinking and planning.

    They also know who to send the I.R.S. after...

    It must be nice to have the bability – let alone the gall – to deploy the might, power and unlimited resources of the government of the United States of America as a WEAPON to be used against your POLITICAL OPPOSITION, and sleep comfortably – knowing with absolute certainty – that the MSM will NEVER hold you to account.

    If this isn't the true illustration of tyranny, I do not know what it.

    January 5, 2014 07:44 am at 7:44 am |
  17. SickofOBAMALies

    They "won't say" if they spy on Congress??????? And why do they get the luxury of "not saying"???????? A policeman pulls me over for a traffic violation and I "won't say" anything, what happens........ I go to the pope probably have my vehicle torn apart, pretty nasty stuff. But Clapper "won't say" this is outrageous and infuriating, make him say and make him say it under oath and someone in the HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES please have the courage to call this man out for any perjury he may make, I, a regular taxpayer don't get to lie under oath, why should government goons get to lie under oath???

    January 5, 2014 07:57 am at 7:57 am |
  18. Name jk. Sfl. GOP CRUZ lee&rubio 24billion dallar LOSS of your tax money conservatives,the garbage of America.

    They should spy on the GOP teaparty traders.

    January 5, 2014 08:17 am at 8:17 am |
  19. brain

    Don't worry Bernie, it'll be the communist/nazi utopia you so wantingly desire once all dissent is squashed via the secret police/KGB/NSA...

    January 5, 2014 08:32 am at 8:32 am |
  20. GaryO

    It would make sense if the NSA did spy on Congress. After all, Congress is infested with some dangerous and seditious characters, since the Tea Party did so well in the 2010 elections.

    January 5, 2014 08:47 am at 8:47 am |
  21. Greg

    YES, I can affirm the NSA is spying on Congress and everyone else and they are recording EVERY word you speak on any electronic device. Questions? The means justifies the results here in America. I suggest you get a second passport and renounce before it gets really bad.

    January 5, 2014 09:27 am at 9:27 am |
  22. Mike

    Yep, all this has blown right back in the gooberments face. Nice.......lol

    January 5, 2014 09:34 am at 9:34 am |
  23. Enough is Enough

    Welcome to the real world along with the rest of us.....What are you afraid that they may find Senator?

    January 5, 2014 09:46 am at 9:46 am |
  24. congressislikeanyoneelse

    Unlimited scope? Unlimited use? Unlimited motive?

    January 5, 2014 10:04 am at 10:04 am |
  25. jddrouin

    Well, there's a simple fix for this blatantly illegal spying ... cut their funding. Start at say 50% and see how quickly that brings the criminals at the NSA around.

    Then, once they're in the 'proper frame of mind', start the criminal prosecutions.

    January 5, 2014 10:19 am at 10:19 am |
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