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Lawmakers Question Collection of Americans' Phone Records

From left to right, Deputy Attorney General James Cole, Robert S. Litt, general counsel in the Office of Director of National Intelligence, NSA Deputy Director John C. Inglis, testify at a House Judiciary hearing on domestic spying on on Capitol Hill, July 17, 2013.
Democratic and Republican members of the U.S. House of Representatives' Committee on the Judiciary have questioned why the National Security Agency is collecting the phone records of millions of Americans, when the majority of the calls are not relevant to any terrorist investigations.

The focus on Capitol Hill is shifting away from the former contractor who revealed the surveillance programs, Edward Snowden, to privacy and civil liberty concerns.

Edward Snowden, who has now applied for temporary asylum in Russia, unleashed a firestorm of controversy in the United States and abroad when he revealed massive phone and email surveillance programs conducted by the NSA. The House Committee on the Judiciary focused on the program authorized under Section 215 of the Patriot Act, which was designed to prevent another major terror attack on the United States after September 11, 2001.

Under Section 215, the NSA has been collecting the phone records of millions of Americans and can store them for five years.

"Do you think a program of this magnitude, gathering information involving a large number of people involved with telephone companies and so on, could be indefinitely kept secret from the American people," asked Republican committee chairman Bob Goodlatte.

"Well, we tried," replied Robert Litt of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

Ranking member John Conyers, a Democrat, said he believes the gathering itself of millions of phone records violates the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution guaranteeing the right to be free of unreasonable searches or seizures.

"I feel very uncomfortable about using aggregated metadata on hundreds of millions of Americans, everybody, including every member of Congress and every citizen who has a phone in the United States of America," he said. "This is unsustainable, it is outrageous and must be stopped immediately."

Deputy Attorney General James Cole defended the program, explaining that the phone records collected do not include any names of individuals, but just the numbers and the length of the calls.

"And they do not include the content of any phone calls," he said. "These are the kinds of records that under longstanding Supreme Court precedent are not protected by the Fourth Amendment."

But most of the members of the committee said their constituents are concerned about a possible breach of privacy, and said they as lawmakers were never aware of the scope of the program.

Republican Congressman James Sensenbrenner has been a staunch defender of the Patriot Act. Sensenbrenner, however, said the current phone records program has gone too far and must be changed before it expires in 2015.

"And unless you realize you have a problem, that is not going to be renewed. There are not the votes in the House of Representatives to renew Section 215," he said.

Government officials testifying at the hearing said they are willing to work with Congress, and stressed that the sole purpose of collecting the records is to help U.S. intelligence agencies defend against terror attacks. Some lawmakers suggested that the NSA negotiate with phone companies to get them to agree to store records for five years, instead of the NSA collecting and storing them, and then if there were a reasonable suspicion, the NSA could obtain a warrant to get the records of a targeted individual.