WASHINGTON – The head of the Senate Intelligence Committee said Thursday that the panel would hold a hearing to get to the bottom of reports that the National Security Agency improperly tapped into the domestic communications of American citizens.
"We will make sure we get the facts," said Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.
The House and Senate Intelligence and Judiciary committees learned of the problem in late February from the Justice Department, a congressional official said Thursday. The committees have since had multiple private briefings on the NSA transgressions.
The Justice Department confirmed Wednesday that it had reined in the NSA's wiretapping activities in the United States after learning that the agency had improperly accessed American phone calls and e-mails while eavesdropping on foreign communications.
Justice officials discovered the problems during a routine review of NSA wiretapping. The government's action was first divulged Wednesday by The New York Times.
The Senate hearing will be closed to the public. It will delve into questions raised by The New York Times story that have not been covered in closed-door informal briefings, a committee official said. The official would not say what those issues are.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because the NSA program is classified.
Justice officials said the problems have been corrected, but they declined to say what measures were taken. They would not detail how the law governing NSA wiretapping was violated or for how long, nor estimate how many Americans' communications were compromised.
Critics of the secret program — the extent of which has never been revealed — contend the government has illegally wiretapped and used data-mining techniques to sweep up vast amounts of phone and e-mail communications.
Kevin Bankston, an attorney with the privacy group Electronic Frontier Foundation, said the revelation shows the "NSA surveillance program is not narrowly targeted against international terrorist communications as the government has claimed, but actually sweeps in masses of domestic communications from telecommunications companies fiber optic networks."
Jameel Jaffer, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's national security project, said it shows safeguards built into the current surveillance law do not necessarily work. The ACLU opposed the current law.
"It appears that the NSA has disregarded even what minimal limits existed," Jaffer said.
For years following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, President George W. Bush secretly authorized the NSA to intercept phone conversations and e-mails inside the United States. He did so without the knowledge or permission of a court created by law 30 years ago to oversee just such activities to prevent government abuse of surveillance powers.
Congress adjusted the law last year, both loosening some provisions and tightening others in an effort to balance protecting national security and guarding civil liberties.
The law allows the government to obtain broad, year-long intercept orders from the FISA court that target foreign groups and people inside the United States.
That provision raised the prospect that communications with innocent Americans might be inadvertently collected without court permission. The court is supposed to approve how the government chooses its targets and how the intercepted American communications would be protected.
The original FISA law required the government to get wiretapping warrants for any individuals targeted from inside the United States.
But technology has changed. Purely foreign communications increasingly pass through U.S. wires and are contained on American computer servers, making them a valuable source of information for U.S. spy agencies.
In a related matter earlier this month, the Justice Department asked a federal court in San Francisco to throw out a lawsuit filed last September by AT&T customers to stop the warrantless NSA surveillance. The Obama administration asserted that the litigation would disclose state secrets and cause "exceptionally grave harm to national security."
In the case known as "Jewel vs. NSA," EFF's Bankston, who represents the plaintiffs, said the Obama administration went further than previous arguments used by the Bush administration. Obama officials claim that the government is immune from lawsuits over illegal surveillance under any of the three federal wiretapping statutes — the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, the Wiretap Act and the Electronic Communications Privacy Act.
Bankston said the Bush administration had claimed immunity only under FISA
"The administration is arguing the government can't ever be sued for illegal surveillance, only for illegal disclosure of what it learned," Bankston said."They are applying this not only in national security cases but all surveillance cases, even FBI domestic criminal cases."
During his presidential campaign, Barack Obama criticized both the Bush administration's use of warrantless surveillance and its reliance on state secrets privilege. The new administration ordered a Justice Department review of such claims.
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