Johnson urges review of NSA surveillance program

Deidre Shesgreen, Zanesville Times Recorder

Ohio lawmakers are conflicted over whether Congress should rein in the National Security Agency’s surveillance program, in which intelligence agencies regularly collect and store millions of Americans’ cell phone records.

As momentum builds on Capitol Hill for legislation to limit the spy program, some lawmakers say the NSA powers need to be protected, while others say they should be dramatically scaled back.

U.S. Rep. Bill Johnson, R-Marietta, urged review of the program by, among others, the U.S. House intelligence committee.

“I believe that there is great concern with this administration about what they would do with privacy data that is entrusted to them,” he said on Monday. “We’ve seen what’s happened with the IRS. Let’s get to the bottom of what they’re actually doing.”

But Johnson said that while safeguarding individual rights is hugely important, it is not greater than defending American lives.

“There is obviously a delicate balance between protecting America from future terrorist attacks and protecting the individual rights and freedoms of the citizens of this country,” he said. “You’re not going to protect against a terrorist attack if you wait until it happens to find out about it. Is surveillance necessary? Yes.”

The issue has taken center stage in recent weeks, after Edward Snowden, a former NSA contractor, leaked details of the so-called metadata program, in which intelligence agencies scoop up millions of phone call records. Officials say they don’t listen in on the calls unless they have a reasonable suspicion that there’s terrorist activity involved, but instead look for patterns in the records.

On July 31, intelligence officials came under fire for the program at a Senate hearing, as they divulged more information about the initiative. National Intelligence Director James Clapper released the underlying court order allowing the data collection, and his general counsel, Robert Litt, said that last year, analysts dove into the call data fewer than 300 times.

The National Security Agency has been collecting bulk cell phone records since 2006, according to a letter Clapper sent to senators July 26. He said the data includes the originating and dialed telephone numbers, the times of the calls and the duration, but not the content of the calls or location of the callers.

The records go into a massive database where they are kept for five years, he said. An intelligence official can plug in a phone number and get information on calls to and from that number, and to and from those involved in those calls, and to and from them, ostensibly uncovering a network of people.

Clapper said a key safeguard against abuse is the requirement, by order of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court released Wednesday, that intelligence officials only plug in phone numbers when there is a “reasonable, articulable suspicion” that they are associated with identified terrorist entities.

“Data acquired under this program may be used only to discover whether known or suspected terrorists have been in contact with other persons who may be engaged in terrorist activities,” he wrote.

Ohio’s senators said a balance must be struck between surveillance and privacy.

“Protecting our national security is critically important, but overly broad surveillance has no place in a free society,” Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, said in a statement. “That is why our nation’s surveillance programs must balance protecting our citizens’ safety with their Constitutional rights and personal freedoms.”

Sen. Portman, R-Ohio, agreed, but added there is a lack of trust with how the federal government would use the information after the IRS targeting scandal.

“The nature of the terrorist threat has blurred many of the lines of traditional foreign versus domestic information collection. While we need to ensure we use the available tools to defend our country, we need to make sure these national security tools remain focused on defending us from our enemies,” he said in a statement. “We need to get this right and make sure the privacy of U.S. citizens is protected.”

On July 24, the House defeated an amendment that would have restricted the NSA’s ability to gather phone records to only individuals who are under investigation. The vote was surprisingly close — 205-to-217 — with liberals joining conservatives to support the measure.

House Speaker John Boehner, R-West Chester, and Brad Wenstrup, R-Columbia-Tusculum, voted against it.

Wenstrup said in a statement that he could not support a provision to “categorically end counter-terrorism tools” because it could make Americans vulnerable to attack.

“The programs in question have thwarted 54 specific plots, many targeting Americans on American soil,” Wenstrup said. “I have reviewed the documents; lives have been saved.”

Boehner said he was glad that lawmakers “on both sides of the aisle worked together to preserve critical intelligence tools that have proven successful in preventing terrorist attacks and keeping America safe.”

In the wake of that vote, leaders of the House Judiciary Committee have started work on a bipartisan bill that would limit phone surveillance and add more transparency to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court’s proceedings.

In the Senate, a group of Democrats have introduced a bill to put a constitutional watchdog inside the secret intelligence court as the judges consider the White House’s surveillance requests. The proposal calls for a special advocate to challenge the government’s surveillance requests before the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.