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. Nemo

    But, particularly given the tendency of politicians to get themselves involved in scandalous, or simply unseemly, activities, the fact that the intelligence agencies have access to all of their personal and professional communications data gives it leverage that weakens their independence. And Rand Paul is right to point out that, in principle, the NSA could even use its powers to gain leverage over a sitting president and other members of the executive branch (this is especially true with an administration like the current one, which has demonstrated a particular proclivity to get involved in scandals). This is not mere paranoia. J. Edgar Hoover did precisely this during his years as head of the FBI, gathering data on numerous public officials to use to gain leverage over them–including several presidents. The only difference was that he did not have access to anywhere near the amount of information on them that the NSA today has on pretty much everybody.

    January 5, 2014 01:56 pm at 1:56 pm |
  2. abbey

    If they aren't they should be! Especially the Dumbacrats! They are traitorous...

    January 5, 2014 01:58 pm at 1:58 pm |
  3. Nemo

    Constitutionally speaking, the crucial question isn't whether the NSA is currently abusing its powers in a way that undermines the separation of powers, but whether in principle it has the capacity to do so. If it does have that ability, then it represents a deep threat to the health and security (ironically) of our constitutional order.

    January 5, 2014 02:03 pm at 2:03 pm |
  4. citoyen

    Mukasey’s recent claim on Fox that the NSA’s powers would only be constitutionally problematic if they were found to have been deliberately abused is entirely wrong. Constitutions protect against the potential for abuse—and such abuse cannot be prevented by mere “parchment barriers” (i.e., a institutional “separation” on paper that can be undermined by the actual power that one branch can bring to bear on the human beings who occupy the other branches). Effective separation of powers requires absolutely barring the NSA from collecting data on members of the other branches and putting into place some effective means by which those other branches can ensure compliance with that ban.

    January 5, 2014 02:11 pm at 2:11 pm |
  5. Sgt Stryker

    It's time to start spying on the spys.
    Find their homes and map them on the web.
    GPS their cars.
    What's good for the goose....

    January 5, 2014 02:13 pm at 2:13 pm |
  6. Freeland_Dave

    Well since Congress approves the NSA's budget would you really expect NSA to confess they were spying on members of Congress? Get real.

    "I want more money."

    What do you want it for?"

    So I can spy on you and your activities and give the information to your enemies for money and political payback."

    "OK, sounds good to me. Here you go."

    Can you see that honestly being played out? In your wildest dreams.

    January 5, 2014 02:37 pm at 2:37 pm |
  7. Jimmy

    Is the NSA spying on Congress, as defined by the letter written by Sen. Bernie Sanders?
    Short answer = yes

    How could they not be? If they have no problem violating our rights, no problem violating the rights of the Press, and no problems violating the privacy of other nations, why would they NOT spy on Congress?

    What surprises me is that this Senator even had to ask.

    No amount of showboating, no amount of outrage is going to stop them. You could probably get them to put on a show, fire a couple of people, cause a distraction in Egypt or Benghazi, to get you to forget about them. But at the end of the day they will be doing the same thing regardless of whats "reported".

    That being said, part of me thinks that this may be a necessary evil. Now before tearing me apart, consider the strategic advantages of having the capabilities to monitor the WORLDS communications grid. As twisted as that may sound, the feat in itself is indeed impressive. In order to continue to exist in "reality" one must be able to deploy every possible means of advantage one can get their hands on. I only wish that the NSA had some sort of accountability. They have access not only to theirs, but by the same technology, ours as well.

    Is this a "fear" response? Not really. I am a techie at heart, and I find the use of the technology alarming, fascinating, and expected all at the same time. I never bought into "Internet anonymity" because from day one on my Cardinal 14.4bps I knew that a server at least was watching me, by necessity, in order to route my network packets to the web pages I wanted to visit. Any moron can watch the screen where that happens. Its usually a list of IPs in numeric format, but tools like "whois" and "nslookup" can allow you to look up any of them to see where they are.And those tools pretty much came with the internet.

    A phone tap at will is just as likely, If the internet is fair play, then telco would have to be as well. Some places do not have fiber, but EVERY place has a telco co=location

    January 5, 2014 02:45 pm at 2:45 pm |
  8. Senator Slimestein

    They spy on everyone for the good of the Fatherland...no police surveillance state would be complete if we could trust anyone.

    January 5, 2014 02:45 pm at 2:45 pm |
  9. Jimmy

    More and more countries are exposing capabilities similar to this one. What I want to know is this.

    When is Congress going to take an internet security course? Or maybe even pick up a copy of "Internet for Dummies"

    Yes your data is fair game. Not just to the NSA, but to Russia, China, England, and now Syria, probably Israel as well.

    Do your part and secure your data. Otherwise one (or all) of these other agencies will secure it for you.

    January 5, 2014 02:50 pm at 2:50 pm |
  10. Alan

    The nsa reports to congress and the president. Lock them up

    January 5, 2014 02:54 pm at 2:54 pm |
  11. templeknight

    The NSA provided a preliminary response Saturday that said Congress has "the same privacy protections as all U.S. persons."
    English translation: you have no expectation of privacy, period! This display of arrogance, goes along way towards explaining Chief Justice Roberts vote reversal on ACA he was blackmailed, coerced or threatened into voting for an UN-Constitutional overreach by the reid controlled senate. Never in the history of this nation has the government forced American citizens to buy anything. It's a direct violation of our rights to life, liberty and happiness.

    January 5, 2014 04:00 pm at 4:00 pm |
  12. Greetings From Canada

    "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."

    One more insult in my audio and you are going to regret it...

    January 5, 2014 04:04 pm at 4:04 pm |
  13. vjarret

    The NSA spies on everyone all the time to include president v president supreme court all members of Congress c e o's the press everyone with no exceptions.

    January 5, 2014 04:23 pm at 4:23 pm |
  14. Mr. Bernard Wijeyasingha

    But that is the very nature of the NSA to be silent on whom they are spying. I have never heard of a secret service agency that gives out a periodical of the names and organizations on their spy list.

    January 5, 2014 04:30 pm at 4:30 pm |
  15. Flippy

    Well, we know they must spy on Supreme Court chief justices...

    January 5, 2014 04:55 pm at 4:55 pm |
  16. bob

    Time to abolish the NSA and put all the leaders in Gitmo

    January 5, 2014 05:06 pm at 5:06 pm |
  17. Bert

    I'm really not surprised that the NSA is in the business of blackmailing elected officials and changing their votes. Criminal organizations are fairly predictable.

    January 5, 2014 05:12 pm at 5:12 pm |
  18. Ax2root

    Whoa, Congress has the same rights to privacy as " all U.S. persons"...not saying much is it?".....by the way since WHEN did the title of U.S. CITIZEN get downgraded to the title of U.S. person? What EXACTLY is the definition of a U.S. PERSON?

    January 5, 2014 05:13 pm at 5:13 pm |
  19. Dr Nick R.

    The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

    January 5, 2014 05:17 pm at 5:17 pm |
  20. alan

    the NSA spies on every one that is on the presidents enemies list

    January 5, 2014 05:26 pm at 5:26 pm |
  21. Ed

    Every American has to realise that every Congressman, Judge, and POTUS, is compromised due to this megadata dragnet, and vulnerable to Blackmail. No trust in the entire, what should be a Republic, not a Democracy, can be afforded by the people until the NSA as it exists is dismantled brick by brick, and rebuilt to serve, not spy on the public. Just as Kenedy was going to do to the CIA, at that time run by Bush. We know what that got our President.

    January 5, 2014 05:33 pm at 5:33 pm |
  22. George Dixon

    The NSA spies on every other American citizen, I would expect they spy on Congress too... or at least on the Republicans in Congress, for Obama.

    Like Obama-IRS 2012, other parts of the Federal system has been subverted by the Obama-Democrat Administration.
    The government's unionized bureaucracy has a vested interest in enabling the democrats and clearly no interest in ethics or the restrictions of Law.

    January 5, 2014 05:33 pm at 5:33 pm |
  23. Barry bin Inhalin

    This is the biggest 'duh' since we wondered if Barry is a committed leftist ideologue. They should also ask if they send the data directly to the White House, or just to an intermediary like Soros, so he can decide what to do with it....

    January 5, 2014 05:38 pm at 5:38 pm |
  24. jasonn13

    Really? You have to ask?

    January 5, 2014 06:01 pm at 6:01 pm |
  25. shawn

    of course the nsa spies on government its the open platform of republicans to starve the beast "the republic"

    there are a lot of super patriots in the nsa who believe everything for the republic

    January 5, 2014 06:02 pm at 6:02 pm |
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