“This is unsustainable, it’s outrageous and must be stopped immediately,” said Rep. John Conyers Jr. (Mich.), the highest-ranking Democrat on the panel.
Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.) — who sponsored the USA Patriot Act, which 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 stood in stark contrast to the tone of hearings on the surveillance programs by congressional intelligence committees in recent weeks. It also came as the government faces a growing number of legal challenges to its collection of “metadata” — information about the numbers Americans called, the date and time of the calls, and how long the calls lasted.
Intelligence officials insist that the program operates under tight guidelines and is overseen by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. They also stressed that the collection efforts have proved crucial to disrupting terrorist plots.
Although 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 probably is looking at the phone records of huge numbers of individuals.
“The court has approved us to go out two or three ‘hops,’ ” NSA Deputy Director John C. Inglis said. “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 think 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 look at everyone those tertiary people contacted. This is called a second and a third hop.
Jameel Jaffer, deputy legal director at the American Civil Liberties Union, said that the NSA has been trying to make it seem as though it peeks at the communications of a tiny subset of people, but that with such hops, it has reviewed the communication patterns of millions.