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U.S. Officials Defend Spying Program As White House Declassifies More Details

  • RFE/RL

Robert S. Litt, general counsel with the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, listens during a hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee on July 31 in Washington, D.C.

Robert S. Litt, general counsel with the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, listens during a hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee on July 31 in Washington, D.C.

WASHINGTON -- U.S. intelligence officials have told members of Congress that the government's domestic spying program is narrowly targeted and does not violate the constitutional right to privacy.

Robert S. Litt, who serves as general counsel in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, told the Senate Judiciary Committee on July 31 that "under the controlling case law…collection of this kind of telephone meta data from the telephone companies is not a violation of anyone's constitutional rights."

But the officials did admit that the program might need to be modified to address public concerns.

"I think we've struck the balance [between privacy and national security] properly here but there's always room for discussion and getting people's input and times sometimes do change and it's good to come back and revisit these things and make sure we have the balance right," said James Cole, the deputy attorney general of the U.S. Department of Justice.

Both Republicans and Democrats have criticized the Obama administration for enacting secret, sweeping domestic surveillance programs that involve collecting e-mails and phone records of millions of Americans. The government says the spying is necessary to disrupt potential terrorist plots.

Under pressure to make the program more transparent, the White House on July 31 declassified details of the National Security Agency program that collects all domestic phone records. The documents say the logs can only be accessed when there is "reasonable suspicion" that a phone number is associated with terrorism.

Some senators on the committee expressed skepticism at the need for such deep secrecy.

"I think these programs protect our country and have saved lives, but I do think there is a critical problem at the center of this debate, and that's the lack of transparency around these programs," , said Senator Al Franken (Democrat-Minnesota). "The government has to give proper weight to both keeping America safe from terrorists and protecting Americans' privacy, but when almost everything about these programs is secret, and when the companies involved are under strict gag orders, the American public has no way of knowing whether we're getting that balance right. I think that's bad for privacy and bad for democracy."

Others, however, maintained that they were comfortable with the scope and constitutionality of surveillance.

"I believe, based on what I have seen – and I read intelligence [reports] regularly – that we would place this nation in jeopardy if we eliminated these two programs," said Dianne Feinstein (Democrat-California), chairwoman of the Senate's Select Committee on Intelligence.

The newly declassified documents acknowledged that the government uses "hop analysis" to examine phone records, which means it can analyze the phone calls of millions of Americans in the hunt for just one suspected terrorist.

The Senate hearing took place a week after the House of Representatives held a vote on the telephone surveillance program. A move to halt the large-scale collection of those records was narrowly defeated but revealed a deep level of opposition in Congress.

A new public opinion poll has found that a majority of Americans – 56 percent – say that federal courts fail to provide adequate limits on the telephone and Internet data the government is collecting as part of its antiterrorism efforts. An even larger percentage -- 70 percent -- believes that the government uses this data for purposes other than investigating terrorism.