Senators Put Surveillance Programs Under Microscope

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National intelligence experts appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee Wednesday to address concerns over the government's collection of Americans' phone records and other electronic data.

At issue is the Federal Intelligence Surveillance Court, or FISA. The Senate docket could soon be full of new bills to address the problem.

By Washington standards, the hearings were mostly cordial, as both senators and security agency representatives claimed they want to balance national security needs with protecting privacy for American citizens.

"In the years since September 11, Congress has repeatedly expanded the scope of FISA," Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said.

"It's given the government sweeping new powers to collect information on law-abiding Americans. And we must carefully consider now whether those laws may have gone too far," he added.

Of particular concern is the 215 Program, named for a section of the Patriot Act that authorizes government surveillance to protect national security. Leaks by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden exposed the surveillance programs' practice of gathering data from more than just terrorists.

"The 215 program involves the collection of metadata from telephone calls," Deputy Attorney General James Cole testified. "These are the telephone records maintained by the phone companies. They include the number the call was dialed from, the number the call was dialed to, the date and time of the call and the length of the call."

"Is anyone's name, address, Social Security number or location collected?" Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, asked Cole.

"Name, address, location, Social Security number is not collected under the 215 Program," he replied. "It never has been and never will be."

Despite the assurances, several senators offered new legislation to make the agencies more accountable.

"Tomorrow I'm introducing a bill to address this, to fix this," Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., said.

The hearings featured rare agreement from conservative and liberal senators on the potential threats posed by metadata programs and secret courts, as well as bipartisan agreement from security hawks that the programs help protect Americans and prevent terrorist attacks.

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John Waage

John Waage

CBN News Sr. Editor

John Waage has covered politics and analyzed elections for CBN News since 1980, including primaries, conventions, and general elections. 

He also analyzes the convulsive politics of the Middle East.