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Lawmakers voice doubts about NSA

| Wednesday, July 17, 2013, 9:27 p.m.

WASHINGTON — Lawmakers of both parties expressed deep skepticism on Wednesday about the government's bulk collection of Americans' telephone records and threatened not to renew the legislative authority that has been used to sanction a program described as “off the tracks legally.”

A congressional backlash appeared to be coalescing around the idea that the administration's interpretation of its powers far exceeds what lawmakers intended. At a hearing of the House Judiciary Committee, lawmakers forcefully pressed officials from the National Security Agency, the Justice Department, the FBI and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence to justify the government's collection and storage of the communications records of vast numbers of Americans.

“This is unsustainable, it's outrageous and must be stopped immediately,” said Michigan Rep. John Conyers Jr., highest-ranking Democrat on the panel.

Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., whosponsored the Patriot Act that ostensibly authorized the collection, warned that the House might not renew Section 215 of the act, a key provision that gives the government its authority.

“You've got to change how you operate 215 ... or you're not going to have it anymore,” Sensenbrenner said.

The sharp and sometimes angry questioning took place as the government faces a growing number of legal challenges to its collection of “metadata” — information about the numbers called by Americans, the date and time of the calls, and how long those calls lasted.

Intelligence officials insisted that the program operates under tight guidelines and is overseen by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. They claimed that the collection efforts have proven crucial to disrupting terrorist plots.

Although many questions about the program remain, administration officials offered new details about the methodology used to analyze the data. For the first time, they suggested that when the government queries its database of phone records — as it did 300 times last year — it was likely looking at the phone records of huge numbers of individuals.

“The court has approved us to go out two or three ‘hops,'” said NSA deputy director John Inglis. “And it's often at the second hop that information is gained that leads the FBI to investigate the person's contacts further.”

A “hop” refers to the way in which analysts broaden their analysis. When analysts believe they have cause to suspect an individual, they will look at everyone that person has contacted, called the first “hop” away from the target. Then, in a series of exponential ripples, they look at everyone all those secondary people communicated with. And from that pool, they go on to look at everyone all those tertiary people contacted. This is called a second and a third “hop.”

The ACLU's deputy legal director, Jameel Jaffer, said the NSA has been trying to make it seem like it peeks at the communications of a tiny subset of people, but with such hops, it has reviewed the communication patterns of millions of individuals.

The ACLU was one of more than 50 signatories of a letter to be sent to President Obama and congressional leaders Thursday calling for more disclosure about the scale of government surveillance requests to technology and telecommunications companies.

Lawmakers said the surveillance effort, which was disclosed by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, is too broad and intrusive.

Deputy Attorney General James Cole said collected information does “not include names or other personal identifying information” and does not include the content of any phone calls. He added that the records are not protected by the Fourth Amendment.

Cole said the programs are legal and overseen by the FISA court.

The 11 judges on the secret FISA court that approves surveillance “are far from rubber stamps,” Cole said.

Virginia Rep. Bob Goodlatte, the chairman of the committee, said he was surprised the programs had been kept secret for so long.

“Do you think a program of this magnitude gathering information involving a large number of people involved with telephone companies could be indefinitely kept secret from the American people?” Goodlatte, a Republican, asked.

“Well,” said ODNI general counsel Robert Litt, “we tried.”

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