The National Security Agency was given expanded authority to gather millions of phone records of Americans after a secret court decided on a broader interpretation of the word "relevant," a new report revealed on Monday.
The changed definition by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISA) permitted the NSA to expand its surveillance activity from one that was focused solely on terrorism and criminal activity to gathering "everything" as part of its broader ongoing investigation into international terrorism, The Wall Street Journal reports
"It think it's a stretch," of previous federal interpretations, Mark Eckenwiler, a senior counsel at law firm Perkins Coie,
told the Journal.
Eckenweiler, who was the Justice Department's primary authority on federal criminal surveillance law until last fall, added that if a federal attorney "served a grand-jury subpoena for such a broad class of records in a criminal investigation, he or she would be laughed out of court."
But FISA departed from traditional legal limitations of surveillance, citing national security concerns. The change was then written into the 2001 Patriot Act when the law was renewed in 2006.
After Edward Snowden revealed details of the NSA's mass data collection, the Obama administration defended the use of large databases, which included records of phone calls dialed and their location, saying more narrow collections would limit its ability for comprehensive screening of terrorism-related communications.
The administration has also pointed to privacy safeguards put in place to limit searches of databases only "when there is a reasonable suspicion, based on specific facts" that a query is associated with a foreign terrorist organization. The content of calls and email messages, for example, are not collected.
Congress repeatedly had the option to prohibit the bulk collection of records but took no action. Still, some lawmakers are concerned that the breadth of surveillance is unjustified.
"The government must request specific records relevant to its investigation," Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, a Wisconsin Republican and one of the authors of the Patriot Act, told the Journal.
"To argue otherwise renders the provision meaningless. It's like scooping up the entire ocean to guarantee you can catch a fish."
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