The Senate Judiciary Committee is hearing evidence Wednesday from intelligence officials and experts about the National Security Agency’s domestic snooping activities revealed by leaker Edward J. Snowden — and critics preparing to pounce.
They say they will use the opportunity to highlight a veil of secrecy behind which the the program operates and is overseen.
The second-in-charge officials from the NSA, FBI and Justice Department, along with the top lawyer for the director of national intelligence will testify before the committee for the first time since Mr. Snowden revealed the NSA was sweeping up records about every telephone call made in the United States.
The collection took place, Mr. Snowden revealed, under the business records provision of section 215 of the USA Patriot Act, the large suite of anti-terror measures hurriedly passed by Congress in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. But the authors of that legislation have said they did not intend the provision to be used in this broad, suspicion-less fashion.
“The legal framework that regulates government surveillance is fundamentally broken,” said Jameel Jaffer, deputy legal director of the ACLU in a statement Tuesday.
Mr. Jaffer will testify on a second panel alongside Stewart Baker, an attorney who previously served as NSA’s top lawyer; and Judge James G. Carr, formerly a member of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) court, the secret tribunal that oversees domestic eavesdropping by U.S. intelligence agencies and authorized the comprehensive suspicion-less collection of Americans’ telephone records by the NSA.
Mr. Baker is a staunch defender of the NSA’s activities, and has argued that oversight of them can only take place in secrecy. He was confronted Tuesday with complaints from GOP Rep. Justin Amash of Michigan that only members of the intelligence committees in Congress were allowed to read the secret rulings of the FISA court.
“You can't have a free country with secret law,” said Mr. Amash on WAMU’s the Diane Rehm show.
“If you're gonna give that secret to 535 [members of the House and Senate], how long do you think it's gonna remain secret? … I would say about 10 minutes,” Mr. Baker retorted.
But critics like Mr. Amash argue that the veil of secrecy behind which the court, the intelligence committees and the other oversight mechanisms for the NSA’s domestic activities invites abuses and makes it impossible to know how effective are either the programs or the safeguards under which they operate.
At the hearing Wednesday, the government is expected to declassify some filings and decisions of the FISA court, after requests from Democratic Judiciary Committee Chairman Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont and the committee’s Republican ranking member Sen. Charles “Chuck” Grassley of Iowa.
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