A key GOP senator weighing the pros and cons of U.S. foreign surveillance had the same question Tuesday as many Americans: Does the U.S. government sweep up their communications while monitoring targets abroad?
Senator Lindsey Graham didn't get an answer.
The South Carolina Republican said Tuesday he has reason to believe that a conversation he had with a foreign individual was intercepted and that someone in the U.S. government might have asked for Graham's identity to be revealed. Graham wrote the CIA, FBI and the National Security Agency requesting information about whether his communications were intercepted.
"Is it possible to find out if I, Lindsey Graham, was incidentally collected talking to a foreign leader abroad? Is that possible?" the senator questioned at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing.
"It's my understanding, senator, we have that request from you," replied Bradley Brooker, the acting general counsel for the national intelligence director.
"Am I ever going to get it in my lifetime?" Graham asked. "If you're not going to give it to me, tell me why."
Growing impatient with Brooker, Senator Chuck Grassley, the committee's Republican chairman, stepped in and offered Graham more time to press for an answer.
"If there's anything in this country people are entitled to, it's to at least get an answer to their question," Grassley said, rapping his gavel three times in anger.
Even though the bulk collection of Americans' telephone records has ended, calls and emails are still swept up by U.S. surveillance work targeting foreigners.
Programs authorized by Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act target foreigners, but communications involving Americans sometimes are vacuumed up as well. Congress is debating reauthorization of the act, which expires at the end of the year.
Typically, an American's name would not be revealed in intelligence reports about intercepted communications. However, if there is foreign intelligence value to revealing an American's name, it can be "unmasked." The name then is shared with U.S. officials or intelligence analysts needing the American's identity to better understand the intelligence collected. It is not supposed to be shared publicly.
An intelligence report issued last month said government officials requested to know the identities of more than 1,900 Americans whose information was swept up in National Security Agency surveillance programs last year.
Graham wants to know how many of those cases involved presidential candidates or members of Congress. He also is seeking to know who made the requests.