Is Congress Responsible for NSA Phone Data Mining?

Sens. Feinstein, Chambliss Defend NSA's phone record seizures.

(Alex Brandon/AP)

"It's called protecting America," Senate Intelligence Chairman Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said Thursday.

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While the public may find it alarming that it has been more than 40 days since the National Security Administration began intercepting the phone records of millions of Verizon customers, many members of Congress provided a passionate and bipartisan defense of the Obama Administration's actions Thursday, since they were the ones who initially approved the order.

"It's called protecting America," Senate Intelligence Chairman Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said during a press gaggle Thursday.

Her Republican counterpart on the Intelligence Committee, Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., hinted that the administration had been conducting similar intelligence exercises for years.

"This is nothing new," Chambliss said. "It has proved meritorious because we have gathered significant information on bad guys and only on bad guys over the years."

[READ: Boehner Calls on Obama to Explain NSA Program]

Members of Congress admit they gave the NSA the authority to gobble up phone records under the PATRIOT Sunsets Extension Act, a broad-reaching bill that gives the federal government the ability to obtain domestic phone records.

"This authority is ultimately given to the administration by Congress," says Wells Bennett, a national security expert at the Brookings Institution.

The Verizon records collected by the NSA since April are not transcripts of phone conversations. The information is metadata: phone numbers, the length of calls made and original location of the calls.

The administration has to obtain warrants for this information through a secret courted created under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). The court, however, has long been seen as a rubber stamp of approval for the administration, allowing it to obtain the security information it wants. Out of the 212 requests made by the administration in 2012, 200 were modified and all were approved.

Chambliss and Feinstein say the action taken by the White House to obtain secret warrants and gather phone records was legal under FISA. Jesselyn Radack, Director of National Security and Human Rights at the Government Accountability Project, argues that the Patriot Act did not give the government the authority to collect such a broad swath of records.

"It does not contemplate a blanket, dragnet surveillance on tens of millions of people," Radack says.

 

Radack, who has defended a series of high-profile whistle blowers from NSA over the last decade, says she's not surprised to see another "greedy" grab for records.

One of Radack's most high-profile cases was that of Thomas Andrews Drake, a former NSA employee who was convicted under the Espionage Act for leaking NSA documents to a Baltimore Sun reporter because he believed that the agency was blatantly disregarding the Fourth Amendment, which protects Americans from unnecessary search and seizures.

"I have represented clients who have been saying this has been happening for years," Radack says. "I am not at all surprised by any of this, but it does disturb me."

A small number of senators also sounded the alarm on the NSA's actions Thursday.

Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., who voted for the Patriot Act extension, says he wants the administration to explain immediately why they needed to collect such an overwhelming number of phone records.

"If true, the collection of this massive amount of detailed information about the communications of American citizens raises extremely serious concerns about why such a broad collection is necessary and how this information is used," Corker said. "The administration should explain exactly why this information is necessary to protect national security."

[ALSO: Feds Scooping Up Verizon Phone Records]

Other Republicans said the latest privacy debacle can be added to a long list of administration scandals.

Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., who voted against the Patriot Act extension, says NSA's actions are an "astounding assault" on the Constitution.

"After revelations that the Internal Revenue Service targeted political dissidents and the Department of Justice seized reporters' phone records, it would appear that this administration has now sunk to a new low," Paul said in a released statement. "The Bill of Rights was designed to protect us from evil, too, particularly that which always correlates with concentrated government power, and particularly executive power. If the President and Congress would obey the Fourth Amendment we all swore to uphold, this new shocking revelation that the government is now spying on citizens' phone data en masse would never have happened."