Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), who lead the Senate Intelligence Committee, spoke with reporters Thursday morning at a hastily arranged news conference to explain and defend the National Security Agency's collection of Verizon telephone records.
An unofficial transcript of the exchange appears below:
Sen. Dianne Feinstein: I just had an opportunity to review the Guardian article and I’d like to make the following points.
As far as I know, this is the exact three month renewal of what has been the case for the past seven years. This renewal is carried out by the FISA Court under the business records section of the Patriot Act. Therefore, it is lawful.
It has been briefed to Congress and the letters that we have distributed -- and you’ll note on the dates, this is prior to the Patriot Act amendments coming before the body, each of those. As you know, this is just metadata. There is no content involved. In other words, no content of a communication. That can only be, these records, I’m not talking about content, the records can only be accessed under heightened standards. The information goes into a database, the metadata, but cannot be accessed without what’s called, and I quote, “reasonable, articulable suspicion” that the records are relevant and related to terrorist activity.
As you know, and I’ve pointed out many times, there have been approximately 100 plots and also arrests made since 2009 by the FBI. I do not know to what extent metadata was used or if it was used, but I do know this: That terrorists will come after us if they can and the only thing we have to deter this is good intelligence. To understand that a plot is being hatched and to get there before they get to us.
As you read those letters, you will see that they were sent at specific dates that were prior to each renewal of the particular business records section asking that members come and review in a classified session the data. That completes my statement.
Sen. Saxby Chambliss: Let me just emphasize, this is nothing particularly new. This has been going on for seven years under the auspices of the FISA authority and every member of the United States Senate has been advised of this.
To my knowledge, we have not had any citizen who has registered a complaint relative to the gathering of this information. It is simply what we call metadata that is never utilized by any governmental agency unless they go back to the FISA court and show that there’s real cause as to why something within the metadata should be looked at.
That’s been very clear all along through the years of this program. It is proved meritorious, because we have gathered significant information on bad guys, but only on bad guys, over the years.
Question: Do you know how many of your Senate colleagues have actually looked at the classified information?
Feinstein: I do not. Certainly the Intelligence Committee should have. We’ve had long discussions. This has been argued on the floor. Mentioned in the article are two senators who’ve had concerns about it. Obviously when the second amendment came up there was considerable argument on the floor about this. The vote was taken and the measure passed and was continued. That’s the business records section.
Question: To be clear: This isn't just Verizon, this is records generally with large phone records, right?
Feinstein: I can’t specifically answer that, maybe David [Graniss, staff director of Senate Intelligence Committee]. Graniss, do you know?
David Graniss: We can’t answer that question.
Feinstein: We cannot answer that. Fortunately, I don’t know.
Question: One thing that has changed a lot since these letters is there’s a climate that you feel more concerned about civil liberties, the IRS, drone strikes. Is it time to revisit some of the rules and measures you’ve put in place?
Feinstein: Let me put it from my point of view, and then the vice chairman will speak. I read intelligence carefully, and I know that people are trying to get to us. This is the reason why we keep TSA doing what it’s doing. This is the reason why the FBI now has 10,000 people doing intelligence on counterterrorism. This is the reason for the National Counterterrorism Center that’s been set up in the time we’ve been active. It’s to ferret this out before it happens. It’s called protecting America.
Look, I’m concerned about the use of drones as much as anybody, and with some degree of knowledge as to how they’re used. We are trying to put something together in an authorization bill to deal with this, but that’s a ways, a month or so, off right now. One doesn’t necessarily follow the other. I think people want the homeland kept safe, to the extent we can. We understand -- I understand -- privacy. Senator Chambliss understands privacy. We want to protect people's private rights. And that’s why this is carefully done. That’s why it’s a federal court of 11 judges who sit 24/7, who review these requests and then either approves them or denies them.
Chambliss: Let me just add to what the chairman said. The Intelligence Committee takes its oversight authority and obligation very seriously. We review every program within the intelligence community on a regular basis, including this program. That’s why we took the liberty of explaining to our colleagues the substance of the program in the two “Dear Colleagues” that we handed out. And we’re going to continue to do that. Where we find abuses, we’re going to take corrective action.
Question: Do you guys know what the information is being used for? What is the government doing with the information?
Feinstein: If there is reasonable, articulable belief that this metadata would figure in a terrorist investigation, then they can examine it. Phone numbers.
Question: Why does it need to be so sweeping? What possible investigation could require all of the phone records?
Feinstein: Well, because they then have what’s a telephone book of the numbers and if, through another way, information comes to the FBI that there is reasonable suspicion that a terrorist act, conspiracy, planning, carrying out, is going on, they can access those records. The records are there to access. This is not something, I think, that we don’t view with extraordinary caution. We do. As you know, both Senator Wyden and Senator Udall have concerns. This was widely debated on the floor when the section of the code was discussed. It was widely debated in the Intelligence Committee when we considered the business records section. So this is simply, it’s renewed every three months, they must go into court, and this is that renewal.
Question: Is it true, then, that this data has been used proactively to have as a hold, so that they’ll have this data in case they want to research and go through it later ... as opposed to looking for something specific and then asking for the data? They’re getting this data so they’ll have it so that they can go back to it if they need it?
Feinstein: I have to get for you the information, because this just came up a few minutes ago, how long the data can be kept.
Question: But they’re sort of logging this data so they can hold it if they need it later, as opposed to knowing that they need it and getting it.
Feinstein: Well, you can’t know that you need it at the time. You have to go to it and see if there is the link that you’re looking for.
Chambliss: The information that they’re really looking for is on the other end of the call. It’s: Are they in contact, is somebody in contact with somebody that we know to be a known terrorist? And that’s why it’s metadata only and it’s what we call minimized. All these numbers are basically ferreted out by computer, but if there’s a number that matches a terrorist number that has been dialed by a U.S. number or dialed from a terrorist to a U.S. number, then that may be flagged. And they may or may not seek a court order to go further on that particular instance. But that’s the only time that this information is ever used in any kind of substantive way.
Feinstein: That is our understanding I’m glad you said that, thank you. That is our understanding.
Question: You say this is not new. All of us were here when you debated reauthorizing FISA a few weeks ago. What is new is that it’s now public. Should there be an investigation into who leaked this information?
Feinstein: Well, you have to give me a little time. I first saw this maybe an hour ago, so I haven’t had an opportunity to do due diligence and I assume that the same is true for Senator Chambliss.
We will put out a joint statement.
(End of press conference)
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