Cantwell, Bipartisan Group of Senators Call for Additional Information on Secret Surveillance Program

Senators urge Director of National Intelligence to shed light on bulk data collection practices to further public debate

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Today, U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA) joined a bipartisan group of 26 senators in urging the Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, to make public more information on a secret government surveillance program used by the National Security Agency (NSA). In a letter led by U.S. Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) to Clapper the senators asked for information on the duration, scope and effectiveness of the program first authorized under the PATRIOT Act.

The senators expressed concerns over the broad scope of the PATRIOT Act’s ‘business records’ authority and how it could be used for the bulk collection of records beyond phone metadata. They stated that wider searches could impact the privacy of Americans who have broken no laws. 

“The PATRIOT Act’s business records authority is very broad in its scope,” the senators wrote in the letter. “It can be used to collect information on credit card purchases, pharmacy record, library record, firearm sales records, financial information, and a range of other sensitive subjects. These other types of bulk collection could clearly have a significant impact on Americans’ privacy and liberties as well.”

In their letter they also highlighted how keeping the law secret while senior officials issued misleading statements to the American people has limited the public debate over what domestic surveillance is needed for national security purposes. 

“We are concerned that by depending on secret interpretations of the PATRIOT Act that differed from an intuitive reading of the statute, this program essentially relied for years on a secret body of law,” the senators continued in the letter. “Statements from senior officials…had the effect of misleading the public about how the law was being interpreted and implemented. This prevents our constituents from evaluating the decisions that their government was making, and will unfortunately undermine trust in government more broadly. The debate that the President has now welcomed is an important first step toward restoring that trust.”

The senators are seeking answers to the following questions in order to give the American people the information they need to conduct an informed public debate.

  • How long has the NSA used PATRIOT Act authorities to engage in bulk collection of Americans’ records? Was this collection underway when the law was reauthorized in 2006?
  • Has the NSA used USA PATRIOT Act authorities to conduct bulk collection of any other types of records pertaining to Americans, beyond phone records?
  • Has the NSA collected or made any plans to collect Americans’ cell-site location data in bulk?
  • Have there been any violations of the court orders permitting this bulk collection, or of the rules governing access to these records? If so, please describe these violations.
  • Please identify any specific examples of instances in which intelligence gained by reviewing phone records obtained through Section 215 bulk collection proved useful in thwarting a particular terrorist plot. 
  • Please provide specific examples of instances in which useful intelligence was gained by reviewing phone records that could not have been obtained without the bulk collection authority, if such examples exist.
  • Please describe the employment status of all persons with conceivable access to this data, including IT professionals, and detail whether they are federal employees, civilian or military, or contractors. 

The senators signing the letter are: Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), Mark Udall (D-Colo.), Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Tom Udall (D-N.M.), Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), Jon Tester (D-Mont.), Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), Dean Heller (R- Nev.),Mark Begich (D-Alaska),  Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Patty Murray (D-Wash.), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii), Al Franken (D-Minn.), Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), Chris Coons (D-Del.), Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Max Baucus (D-Mont.), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.), Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisc.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah).

To read the letter click here.