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

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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. templeknight

    The press and media may be fooled, but we're not, ever since chief justice Roberts changed his vote on ACA, we've known that the NSA is spying on all politicians and judges in positions of power, and blackmailing, coercing or leveraging
    them (recording of private phone conversations, tampering with their mail) it goes along way in explaining the odd recent voting behavior of certain {so called} conservative republicans, they're now firmly in the rino column. The NSA with every passing day more and more resembles the Gestapo/Waffen SS, and if Hitler had a son he might be obama.

    January 4, 2014 07:40 pm at 7:40 pm |
  2. J

    They all lie in the nsa its required to get the job! When is clapper going to jail? Or is the nsa above the law?

    January 4, 2014 07:52 pm at 7:52 pm |
  3. Mike

    "...just like everyone else"! LOL!! Now that the shoe is on the other foot, just what are you gonna do about it?!

    January 4, 2014 07:53 pm at 7:53 pm |
  4. Pelosi

    Bernie you voted for spying the consequences belong to you. No exemption like Obamacare your other vote. You are not special!

    January 4, 2014 08:08 pm at 8:08 pm |
  5. tma1

    If they don't then why are the Repub Commie leadership so damned scared of the Lib Demo-Commies?

    January 4, 2014 08:17 pm at 8:17 pm |
  6. MrLogical

    But, how can Obama control congress if he doesn't spy on congressmen?

    January 4, 2014 08:25 pm at 8:25 pm |
  7. Catherine Crabill

    Should Congress feign outrage over being spied on and blackmailed by the NSA while not giving a damn about them doing it to us?

    January 4, 2014 08:28 pm at 8:28 pm |
  8. fflandro

    Does the NSA spy on, oh let's say, Supreme Court Chief Justice "Obamacare is a Tax" Roberts?

    January 4, 2014 08:29 pm at 8:29 pm |
  9. croaton999

    The short answer is ....yes.

    January 4, 2014 08:30 pm at 8:30 pm |
  10. brace_for_impact

    Congress is focused on whether their privacy is being violated but not concerned about the police state when it comes to the rest of us. NSA snooping would explain why so many politicians and judges flip flop once they get to Washington. The conversation would probably go like this – " You will vote for this or these pictures we extracted from your phone involving you with a certain farm animal will suddenly surface."

    January 4, 2014 08:59 pm at 8:59 pm |
  11. sashew

    I think the SS gave a similar answer anyone who asked in Nazi Germany, and we all know how well that worked. I can't how the people can have any confidence in a congress where every every person has been digitally strip searched and
    can be blackmailed. Recent security studies suggest no benefit from the program. The only real plot was some taxi driver sending $5000 home. That's not much to show for $10-20 Billion and shredding the Bill of Rights.

    I'll take the 1 in a million risk of terrorists, not the 90% risk that the NSA will misuse their power and information.
    I think we can expect the same respect for Americans privacy as Mr Hoover showed to Einstein and Martin Luther King Jr.

    January 4, 2014 09:18 pm at 9:18 pm |
  12. GOP = Greed Over People

    It should be, it is the biggest nest of "domestic terrorists" and "anarchists" know to man!

    January 4, 2014 09:39 pm at 9:39 pm |
  13. WMSR

    Mellissa, you don't owe anybody an apology. You've brought forgotten Mitt back into the media, you've brought attention to MSNBC, the GOP and most of all yourself.. Everybody will watch your show now.. OOPS!!! Mitt is booked for Fox Sunday 01/05/2014 WMSR

    January 4, 2014 09:45 pm at 9:45 pm |
  14. Paul

    So lies are 'misleading answer(s)' according to Clapper. He should be in prison is the Valerie Palme fiasco is any guide. Slam dunk of a case. Holder just won't prosecute his own. Where is the special counsel? Where are the establishment republicans? No special counsel? Really?

    January 4, 2014 09:52 pm at 9:52 pm |
  15. Sam

    Wait until the democrat senators find that they and their families have been part of the spying.

    January 4, 2014 10:07 pm at 10:07 pm |
  16. greyfox

    Your government is out of control.

    January 4, 2014 10:13 pm at 10:13 pm |
  17. Sausage Frenzy

    How can this agency be allowed to continue? They are destroying the reputation of the US, they are unaccountable,. they lie to congress and escape punishment. They are out of control and must be halted immediately. Forget terrorism, the real threat to the US is the unbridled "intelligence" agencies.

    January 4, 2014 10:13 pm at 10:13 pm |
  18. Paul K

    This episode has been a great "slippery slope" example. When Bush spied on a few dozen conversations between known terrorist sympathizers and someone in the U.S.A, all hell broke loose for the targeted spying without a warrant. This administration claims that it is legally permissible as long as ALL American citizens are spied on equally. They are then free to glean whatever information they want on specific individuals from that universally acquired information. This is obviously a tactic perfect for extortion, blackmail, coercion, and for a subtle message of unknown consequences to those considering being non-compliant with the administration. Why risk voting against the administration if you have too much to loose? A family member may not get approved for a surgery, your son may not get accepted to his college or who knows what truth or untruth may be exposed. We went from sending a message telling terrorists we are watching them to the new and upcoming mantra of "Accept what the Democratic Party wants if you want to live in peace".

    January 4, 2014 10:21 pm at 10:21 pm |
  19. ???

    who watches the nsa then?

    January 4, 2014 10:26 pm at 10:26 pm |
  20. ???

    i hope someone is watching them. how do we know they aren't being co-coerced, bribed, threatened, taken off shore (life threatening) and someone is using psy ops on them to spend more money on wars, foreign people bribing our politicians, banksters, lobbyists??? someone really should be watching them. supreme court also.

    January 4, 2014 10:29 pm at 10:29 pm |
  21. sonnie3

    I hope that they spy real hard on Congress/ Then many we can get this fiasco under control/ Just another obama
    scandal/ God bless Snowden for his showing just how corrupt this administration is.

    January 4, 2014 10:33 pm at 10:33 pm |
  22. Borninkenya

    It's all part of the "most open administration ever" .If you like your doctor you can keep him .

    January 4, 2014 10:57 pm at 10:57 pm |
  23. Pouncekitty

    Of course they are spying on Pelosi and Reid. How do you think conservatives get information about them?

    January 4, 2014 11:02 pm at 11:02 pm |
  24. Joao de Barro

    I hope so. Most of them need surveillance for protection of tax payers.

    January 4, 2014 11:16 pm at 11:16 pm |
  25. Alex

    The NSA is out of control. Even if Congress or the SCOTUS told them to stop, I doubt they would.

    January 4, 2014 11:44 pm at 11:44 pm |
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