Even if the weekend’s intelligence warnings about the threat of terrorist attacks in the Middle East came from electronic eavesdropping abroad by the National Security Agency, that would not ease congressional opposition to the NSA’s mass collection of domestic phone records, lawmakers from both parties said Monday.
One Republican congressman said he doubts the NSA’s domestic program had anything to do with the warnings that shut down U.S. embassies in Africa, the Middle East and South Asia.
“As far as I understand, [the warnings] came from foreign sources, not from this huge [NSA] database of domestic phone records,” said Rep. H. Morgan Griffith, Virginia Republican.
He accused the Obama administration of blurring the line between foreign eavesdropping, which has long been the NSA’s job, and domestic data-gathering that began after the Sept. 11, 2001, suicide hijackings, amid fears of terrorist sleeper cells and al Qaeda infiltration into the United States.
“The administration has tried to make it appear that these programs rely on one another,” Mr. Griffith said. “They don’t.”
Rep. Steve Cohen, Tennessee Democrat and another critic of the NSA’s domestic activities, said NSA defenders claimed the warnings justified the domestic spying program.
But Mr. Cohen said he doubted that the revelations would shift the political terrain, especially with Congress on a five-week summer recess.
“We’re gone for 40 days, and lot can happen before we get back,” he said.
Mr. Cohen said his constituents are concerned about the risk of abuse of domestic intelligence gathering.
“It’s the Nixons and Hoovers of the future” they were worried about, he said, referring to the secrecy-obsessed President Nixon and longtime FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover.
Even before the intelligence warnings were disclosed over the weekend, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy, Vermont Democrat, said last week that he was not convinced the program was effective.
“I’ve read all the classified material [and] they have not proven to me that it makes us safer,” he told C-SPAN TV’s “Newsmakers.”
A committee aide said in a statement that Mr. Leahy “continues to believe that Congressional review [of the programs] is necessary.”
Mr. Griffith said that in the six weeks since Edward Snowden revealed the existence of two vast data-gathering programs run by the NSA, he had written four times to the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. In each letter, he asked to see various classified court documents outlining the legal reasoning underpinning the programs.
He was especially concerned about the legal basis for the NSA’s vast domestic database with records of every telephone call made in America for the past five years.
“I have not received a reply. It’s a problem,” said Mr. Griffith, a lawyer who serves on the House Energy and Commerce oversight and investigations subcommittee. “I can’t properly do my job without seeing the legal opinions.”
An intelligence committee staffer said in a statement that the panel has “worked to get documents responsive to Mr. Griffith’s request declassified so that not only he, but all members of Congress, could see them.”
Some documents — including two secret reports to Congress on the program, but not the legal opinions Mr. Griffith requested — were declassified last week and had been provided to the congressman, the staffer said.
Mr. Griffith said the domestic data-collection program looked exactly like a violation of the constitutional protections against government searches without judicial warrants.
However, legislation could be drafted to “both protect civil liberties and protect America from terrorism,” he said.
“But to prepare for that, I have to be able to see the legal reasoning that underlies this program.”
Mr. Griffith said he did not believe the delay was a result of his public opposition to the program.
“I would hope it was just that they got a lot of requests,” he said.
“There are some who would conjecture that my views were a factor [in the delay]. I hope that they weren’t.”
But he added that the difficulties he was having getting access to legal opinions ought to be of great concern.
“To collect data about the phone calls of millions of innocent Americans, a secret agency applies to a secret court and it’s all overseen by a very secretive [House intelligence] committee. That’s not how America should work,” he said.