Wyden Continues to Press Intelligence Officials on Needed Domestic Surveillance Reforms

WASHINGTON – U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden today pressed top intelligence officials on the problems of building “an intelligence collection system that repeatedly deceived the American people” during an open hearing held by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.

Yesterday, Wyden, along with U.S. Senators Mark Udall, D-Colo., Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., and Rand Paul, R-Ky., introduced comprehensive, bipartisan legislation to reform domestic surveillance laws and the secret surveillance court. The Intelligence Oversight and Surveillance Reform Act will prohibit bulk collection of Americans’ records, shield Americans from warrantless searches of their communications and install a constitutional advocate to argue significant cases before the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance court.

A summary of the legislation can be found by clicking here.

Below is video and a transcript of Wyden’s statements and questions from today’s hearing with National Intelligence Director James R. Clapper, National Security Agency Director Gen. Keith B. Alexander and Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole:

U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden (Wyden): Thank you Madam Chair and Madam Chair let me commend you for holding this open hearing. In my view these kind of open hearings are key to robust intelligence oversight and it allows the American people to be part of an informed debate about policy; policy to protect both our security and liberty and it is being done once again without disclosing details of secret operations. So thank you for that. 

Gentlemen, you talked in your opening statements about the damage that was done by the recent disclosures.  I believe that any government official who thought that the intrusive, constitutionally flawed surveillance system would never be disclosed was ignoring history.  As Senators pointed out on the Senate floor two years ago, even a quick read of history shows that in America the truth always manages to come out. 

Notwithstanding the extraordinary professionalism and patriotism of thousands of dedicated intelligence professionals, the leadership of your agencies built an intelligence collection system that repeatedly deceived the American people.  Time and again, the American people were told one thing about domestic surveillance in public forums, while government agencies did something else in private. 

Now these secret interpretations of the law and violations of the Constitutional rights of Americans have become public, your agencies face terrible consequences that were not planned for.  There has been a loss of trust in our intelligence apparatus here at home and with friendly foreign allies, and that trust is going to take time to rebuild.  And in my view this loss of trust undermines America’s ability to collect intelligence on real threats, and every member of this committee knows there are very real threats out there.

Your joint testimony today blames the media and others, but the fact is that this could have been avoided if the intelligence leadership had been straight with the American people and not acted like the deceptions that were practiced for years could last forever.  I hope this is a lesson that your agencies are going to carry into the future.

I also wanted to note that I think it is very helpful that Senator Feinstein mentioned the mark-up that would be held next week with respect to her bill. Yesterday Senator Udall and I, with Senator Paul and Senator Blumenthal, introduced bipartisan reform legislation as well and we will, as part of that mark-up, advance our proposal. And suffice it to say, I think we all know we are going to have a vigorous debate on those questions.

Now with respect to questions, let me start with you Director Alexander, and, as you all know, I will notify you in advance so that there won’t be any surprise about the types of issues we are going to get into. And Director Alexander, Senators Udall, Heinrich and I and about two dozen other senators have asked in the past whether the NSA has ever collected or made any plans to collect Americans’ cell-site information in bulk. What would be your response to that?

Gen.  Keith Alexander (Alexander): Senator, on July 25, Director Clapper provided a non-classified written response to this question amongst others, as well as a classified supplement with additional detail. Allow me to reaffirm what was stated in that unclassified response. Under section 215, NSA is not receiving cell-site location data and has no current plans to do so. As you know, I indicated to this committee on October 20, 2011, that I would notify Congress of NSA’s intent to obtain cell-site location data prior to any such plans being put in place. As you may also be aware, --

Wyden: General, if I might. I think we’re all familiar with it. That’s not the question I’m asking. Respectfully, I’m asking, has the NSA ever collected or ever made any plans to collect Americans’ cell-site information. That was the question and we, respectfully General, have still not gotten an answer to it. Could you give me an answer to that?

Alexander: We did. We sent that -- as you’re also aware I expressly reaffirmed this commitment to the committee on June 25, 2013. Finally, in the most recent and now declassified opinion renewing this program, the FISA court made clear in footnote number five that notice to the court in a briefing would be required if the government were to seek production of cell-site location information as part of the bulk production of call detail records. Additional details were also provided in the classified supplement to Director Clapper’s July 25th response to this question. So what I don’t want to do, Senator, is put out in an unclassified forum anything that’s classified there so I’m reading to you exactly. So we sent both of these to you. I saw what Director Clapper sent and I agree with it.

Wyden: General, if you’re responding to my question by not answering it because you think that’s a classified matter that is certainly your right. We will continue to explore that because I believe this is something the American people have a right to know whether the NSA has ever collected or made plans to collect cell-site information. I understand your answer. I’ll have additional questions on the next round. Thank you, Madam Chair.