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. clooney_art

    The intelligence agencies of certain banana republic countries do not respond to civilian leadership. NSA is acting like a rogue state-within-a-state. Happens when the democratically elected leadership doesn't have control over the country. I shudder to think what will happen if the military and the NSA collaborate and become uber rogue.

    January 5, 2014 06:05 pm at 6:05 pm |
  2. alpha1six

    My understanding is that no one is listening to any conversations. They are simply collecting phone numbers and running a program that numbers that are talking to known terrorist numbers. Seems to me that is just an attempt to connect the dots. Something that should have been done prior to 9/11. If someone from Toledo or Memphis is taking to a terrorist in Madrid I think it would be helpful to know it.

    As for congress why should they be exempt from any program that are meant to protect the homeland. I think that it would be very helpful to the US voters to be able to hear and see what kinds of discussions take place during the debates on legislation like obamacare. Who is selling their votes and for how much. As the employer of these politicians I think that I have a right to observe how they are doing the peoples business.

    January 5, 2014 06:13 pm at 6:13 pm |
  3. iambicpentamaster

    Well, that depends upon how many of their ex-spouses are in Congress.

    January 5, 2014 06:18 pm at 6:18 pm |
  4. redruffansore

    They obviously are not otherwise 80 percent of them would be in prison doing hard labor. If the NSA was doing it's job, Holder would have been in front of a firing squad by now.

    January 5, 2014 06:20 pm at 6:20 pm |
  5. Samuellenn

    You know good a well Obama had them do it, he is the boss of them.

    January 5, 2014 06:28 pm at 6:28 pm |
  6. Hugh Janus

    Obama be praised.

    January 5, 2014 06:35 pm at 6:35 pm |
  7. RS

    This spew is NSA for "yes", we spy on Congress, and all judges.

    January 5, 2014 06:36 pm at 6:36 pm |
  8. Foggyworld

    Just finished reading Black List by Brad Thor and while it's just a regular thriller it does give readers a wider picture of just what may be going on.

    I do think that if We the People are to be subjected to this almost unlimited invasion of privacy, Senators, Congresspeople and yes the President and Supreme Court Justices should not be EXEMPT from any or all of what is happening.

    January 5, 2014 06:36 pm at 6:36 pm |
  9. Jeff Valasek

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

    It wasn't 'misleading'. It WAS a lie. Intention or not, it was a LIE. Enough of the 'political correctness.

    January 5, 2014 06:48 pm at 6:48 pm |
  10. agsb2

    If they don't say specifically then I would assume that they do spy on those that approve their paycheck, but congress is tooo dumb to figure this out!

    January 5, 2014 06:53 pm at 6:53 pm |
  11. Dorothy

    Our Congress is exactly who the NSA should be spying on.
    Lobbyist them for favors, etc.
    NSA is right to spy on our politicians and see who they are getting money for and for what.

    January 5, 2014 07:25 pm at 7:25 pm |
  12. Mr. Obvious

    They sure spied well on John Roberts. How else did they blackmail him into supporting Obamacare which is clearly unconstitutional!

    January 5, 2014 07:48 pm at 7:48 pm |
  13. SpringsTaurus

    If the "National Surveillance Agency (NSA)" is not answerable to Congress, what kind of government do we have.

    January 5, 2014 07:54 pm at 7:54 pm |
  14. ImJustAGuy

    Like the rest of the Federal Government under Obama, expect the NSA paid especially close attention to the Republican members of congress.

    January 5, 2014 07:59 pm at 7:59 pm |
  15. Kevin Stowell

    Why would an admitted socialist care?

    January 5, 2014 08:01 pm at 8:01 pm |
  16. fisher1949

    No one has asked them if they're spying on the White House yet but I expect that would get the same non-response.

    No doubt that NSA is spying on everyone, Congress, the Judiciary and the White House just as they have spied on foreign heads of state.

    It has become a rogue agency and needs to be dismantled and the guilty tried as traitors.

    January 5, 2014 08:17 pm at 8:17 pm |
  17. Jimh77


    NO, no one is safe from the NSA, not even the NSA members themselves. Or their spouses. What makes Congress think they are off the table. Their more criminal than the criminals on the streets.

    January 5, 2014 08:17 pm at 8:17 pm |
  18. Randall

    Think Obozo will not use the NSA to try to dig up dirt on the opponents to his Senate cronies who are about to lose?? their elections and the Senate majority?? He used the IRS to attack his opponents in 12' and it was directed directly by him. Anybody who doesn't believe that is just plain stupid He is a fascist.

    January 5, 2014 08:20 pm at 8:20 pm |
  19. iambicpentamaster

    Why ask?

    No one would believe their answer.

    January 5, 2014 08:42 pm at 8:42 pm |
  20. Name Uche Agonsi

    Snowden issue and others deserve to be viewed from the report of the Commission set up by President Obama on the matter. Arbitrary revelations based on individual perception and outside regulatory provisions are considered illegal. Senator Sander's letter expects the NSA to crucify itself......that is "great expectation".

    January 5, 2014 08:51 pm at 8:51 pm |
  21. Jeff

    I would bet money the NSA is even spying on Obama.

    January 5, 2014 08:59 pm at 8:59 pm |
  22. Name Uche Agonsi

    Senator Sander is either naive or just trouble-shooting. He should have asked himself simple questions like if Congress requires any Security Protection, whether Congress has CCTVs, whether the media report information on Congress and how ......Sanders should take a lesson on Capitol Security.

    January 5, 2014 09:13 pm at 9:13 pm |
  23. The MaD HaCkER

    Who shall watch the watcher? The only thing that controls the use of the information is the intention of the holder. Like a gun or nuclear launch codes the possessor is only a problem if his intentions are bad. So power comes a cropper; and these fools have a great thirst for power.

    January 5, 2014 09:20 pm at 9:20 pm |
  24. tecjK

    WAKE UP AMERICA! Before it's too late.

    The NSA will only spy on true conservatives, & report on them to the media.

    This IS the most corrupt and dishonest and illegal administration in the history of the United States!

    January 5, 2014 09:46 pm at 9:46 pm |
  25. thx1138v2

    And congressional aides and their families and every member of the judiciary and their families and their aides and families and all governors and their aides and families and state and county legislators and judiciary and thier aides and families and all law enforcement at all levels. Basically anyone that can deter or enhance the passing or implementation or enforcement of any law anywhere in the country. That's the people that are the targets. Not the working stiff that has to live with and pay for those decisions.

    IMO it was this kind of information wrt his adopted children that got Chief Justice Roberts to change his vote on the ObamaCare ruling.

    January 5, 2014 09:54 pm at 9:54 pm |
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