U.S. Sen. Mark Udall (left) and U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) (right) at a press conference on Capitol Hill November 18, 2010, in Washington, DC.
Last night U.S. Senators Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Mark Udall (D-Colo.), who both sit on the Senate Intelligence Committee, called out the intelligence community in a joint statement.
The release was in response to recent reports from The Guardian that the National Security Agency (NSA) collected U.S. email records in bulk for more than two years under President Barack Obama and still collects and analyzes reams of data from U.S. communications systems.
Basically, the senators question the effectiveness of the NSA's bulk collection programs and assert that claims made by intelligence officials "should not simply be accepted at face value."
The bulk collection of email records and phone data are permitted under the "business records" clause in section 215 of the Patriot Act .
The senators, who have extensive access to classified information, state that they "spent a significant portion of 2011 pressing intelligence officials to provide evidence of [the bulk email collection program's] effectiveness" before it was shut down that year after evidence was never presented.
Furthermore, they say that "intelligence agencies made statements to both Congress and the Court that significantly exaggerated this program’s effectiveness," adding that the disingenuous claims led them "to be skeptical of claims about the value of the bulk phone records collection program" as well.
"I don't think collecting millions and millions of Americans' phone calls — now this is the metadata, this is the time, place, to whom you direct the calls — is making us any safer," Udall has previously said.
Last month NSA chief Keith Alexander testified that the programs prevented " dozens of terrorist events. " Udall countered that there is no proof that the NSA’s collection of phone records has helped thwart any terror plots.
From the statement :
It is up to Congress, the courts and the public to ask the tough questions and press even experienced intelligence officials to back their assertions up with actual evidence, rather than simply deferring to these officials’ conclusions without challenging them.
The senators also explained how Patriot Act authorities can be abused.
The statement says that " section 215 of the Patriot Act can be used to collect any type of records whatsoever," and highlights the potential for abuse (emphasis ours):
"The fact that Patriot Act authorities were used for the bulk collection of email records as well as phone records underscores our concern that this authority could be used to collect other types of records in bulk as well, including information on credit card purchases, medical records, library records, firearm sales records, financial information and a range of other sensitive subjects. These other types of collection could clearly have a significant impact on Americans’ constitutional rights."
That statement is reminiscent of claims made by NSA whistleblower William Binney, who contends that a program he built (i.e. ThinThread) has been used to track electronic activities — phone calls, emails, banking and travel records, social media , etc. — and map them to collect "all the attributes that any individual has" in every type of activity and build a real-time profile based on that data.
It should be noted that the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) can copy and examine entire government databases to predict possible criminal behavior of any U.S. citizen, according to a November report by Julia Angwin of The Wall Street Journal.
That means that the NCTC can " examine the government files of U.S. citizens for possible criminal behavior, even if there is no reason to suspect them," Angwin found.
"It's breathtaking" in its scope, a former senior administration official told Angwin.
Angwin notes that the rules " allow databases of U.S. civilian information to be given to foreign governments for analysis of their own. "
All-in-all, between the NSA's domestic dragnet and the NCTC's access to all government records, it appears that the government has the capability to collect and analyze pretty much any electronic record that is created by American citizens.
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