NSA responds to senator's letter without denying it spied on Congress

Agency says it will continue to review questions about alleged communications data collection of elected officials

People demonstrate in support of whistle-blower Edward Snowden, in Hamburg, Germany, on Saturday.
Bodo Marks/EPA

The National Security Agency (NSA) has failed to dismiss suggestions that it spied on members of Congress, responding to a direct question on the matter by issuing a statement that merely referenced “privacy protections” granted to all U.S. citizens.

On Friday, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-VT, wrote to the agency to ask “one very simple question.”

“Has the NSA spied, or is the NSA currently spying, on members of Congress or other American elected officials?” the ardent critic of the NSA asked.

The reply came a day later and seemingly dodged the main point of Sanders' missive. The NSA’s statement went as far as mentioning safeguards it maintains for all American phone records, but it neglected to comment directly on whether lawmakers’ communications had been targeted in its expansive data sweep.

Allegations of snooping on members of Congress surfaced as part of files leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, who has released thousands of documents implicating the NSA in snooping on American citizens as well as foreign allies.

Snowden, living in Russia on temporary political asylum, has reportedly only released a fraction of the confidential files he possesses.

“NSA’s authorities to collect signals intelligence data include procedures that protect the privacy of U.S. persons,” the NSA statement read. “Such protections are built into and cut across the entire process. Members of Congress have the same privacy protections as all U.S. persons.”

The agency's failure to address Sanders' specific concern comes at a moment when it faces mounting bipartisan pressure from Congress to come clean on its data-collection policies.

Republican Sen. Rand Paul announced that he will be filing a suit against the Obama administration over the NSA’s data-collection policies. Paul believes the policies violate the Fourth Amendment, which prohibits unreasonable search and seizure.

“NSA is fully committed to transparency with Congress,” the agency said in the statement. “We are reviewing Senator Sanders’ letter now, and we will continue to work to ensure that all members of Congress, including Senator Sanders, have information about NSA’s mission, authorities and programs to fully inform the discharge of their duties.”

The NSA’s controversial data collection was dealt conflicting decisions in two December court cases, which may propel the issue to the Supreme Court.

A Washington federal judge declared the bulk collection of phone records unconstitutional in a Dec. 16 ruling, but a New York federal judge subsequently ruled in a suit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union that the NSA’s phone-data collection is in fact legal and “represents the government’s counter-punch to Al-Qaeda."

On the heels of those decisions, Paul is encouraging Americans to sign on to a class action lawsuit on his website “to stop Barack Obama’s NSA from snooping.” In a Sunday interview on ABC’s This Week, Paul reiterated that any American in the U.S. with a cell phone should be eligible to join the suit.

“One single warrant should not apply to everyone who has a cell phone in America,” he said. “I think the idea of a class-action lawsuit with hundreds of thousands of participants really beats home and brings to the forefront the idea that this is a generalized warrant, and it should be considered unconstitutional.”

Paul also weighed in on Snowden’s fate, commenting that he does not believe Snowden deserves the death penalty or life in prison. Government officials have told reporters off the record that there is talk of offering Snowden clemency.

The New York Times this week published an editorial that said Snowden “deserves better than a life of permanent exile, fear and flight.”

“He may have committed a crime to do so, but he has done his country a great service," the paper wrote.

But Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-NY, told This Week host George Stephanopolous that Snowden should not be offered opportunity for plea bargain before surrendering to U.S. authorities.

“If he’s truly in the tradition of civil disobedience, he comes back and faces the trial and the consequences that the government says he should.”

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