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Wyden Continues to Blast Obama Administration on ‘Backdoor’ Surveillance (Video)

(Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
(Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Sen. Ron Wyden is raising additional concerns about “backdoor” queries of communications by American citizens by federal intelligence and law enforcement authorities.  

“I and other reformers in Congress have argued that intelligence agencies should absolutely be permitted to search for communications pertaining to counterterrorism and other foreign threats, but if intelligence officials are deliberately searching for and reading the communications of specific Americans, the Constitution requires a warrant,” Wyden said in a statement. “The bipartisan, bicameral legislation that I and other reformers have supported would permit the government to conduct these searches pursuant to a probable cause warrant or emergency authorization, and it would include an exception for searches for individuals who are believed to be in danger.”  

The Oregon Democrat released an unclassified letter Monday dated June 27 from Deirdre M. Walsh, the director of legislative affairs at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.  

“The queries in question are lawful, limited in scope, and subject to oversight as approved by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC). Contrary to some claims, there is no loophole in the law, nor is the Intelligence Community conducting unlawful or ‘backdoor searches’ of communications of U.S. persons,” the DNI’s office said in its response to Wyden.  

Wyden pressed the Obama administration about the collection of records during an open hearing on June 5.  

On a related note, Sens. Al Franken, D-Minn., and Dean Heller, R-Nev., were critical of a new administration report on the nation’s surveillance programs and renewed their calls for passage of legislation they have sponsored mandating more disclosure.  

“The Administration’s report is a far cry from the kind of transparency that the American people demand and deserve,” Franken said in joint release Monday with Heller. “I recognize that this report is being offered in good faith. But it still leaves Americans in the dark. It doesn’t tell the American people enough about what information is being gathered about them and how it’s being used.”  

According to the duo, the report, issued last week by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, releases the estimated number of “targets” affected by government surveillance in 2013 under different national security authorities. But the report does not show the total number of people whose information is being collected by the government under these authorities, how many of these people are likely American, and how many of those Americans had their information reviewed by government officials.  

“The report released by the Administration represents some progress, but it does not do near enough to provide Americans with adequate information,” Heller said. “The American people deserve greater transparency and American companies should be able to disclose more information when it comes to privacy rights and the federal government’s surveillance activities.”  

A Franken-Heller bill would require the disclosure of the number of individuals the federal government monitors and data on the scope of government surveillance companies turn over  

“Strong provisions like these deliver a better explanation to individuals, but they also give American companies additional flexibility for greater disclosure,” Heller said.  

In addition to agencies involved in addressing threats abroad, the FBI has access to at least a portion of the collections made under Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.  

“Unlike other IC agencies, because of its domestic mission, the FBI routinely deals with information about U.S. persons and is expected to look for domestic connections to threats emanating from abroad, including threats involving Section-702 non-U.S. person targets. To fulfill its mission and and avoid missing connections within the information lawfully in its possession, the FBI does not distinguish between U.S. and non-U.S. persons for purposes of querying Section 702 collection,” the response said. “It should be noted that the FBI does not receive all of NSA’s Section 702 collection; rather, the FBI only requests and receives a small percentage of NSA’s total Section 702 collection and only for those selectors in which the FBI has an investigative interest.”  

Wyden considered the disclosure that the FBI does not track the number of these queries to be particularly problematic.  

“When the FBI says it conducts a substantial number of searches and it has no idea of what the number is, it shows how flawed this system is and the consequences of inadequate oversight. This huge gap in oversight is a problem now, and will only grow as global communications systems become more interconnected. The findings transmitted to me raise questions about whether the FBI is exercising any internal controls over the use of backdoor searches including who and how many government employees can access the personal data of individual Americans,” Wyden said. “I intend to follow this up until it is fixed.”  

Wyden pointed to a recent 293-123 House vote on an amendment that would limit the National Security Agency’s surveillance powers.