“So, here I have my Verizon phone, my cellphone, what authorized investigation gave you the grounds for acquiring my cellphone data?” said Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), waving his phone in front of Gen. Keith B. Alexander when the director of the National Security Agency appeared before the Senate on Wednesday.
The leak of a highly classified court order showed that Verizon Business Network Services was turning over all domestic call records and that the government is collecting data on tens of millions of Americans — a situation that an ideologically diverse group of Senate and House lawmakers had long been hinting at.
Demanding public answers to questions they have posed for years, these lawmakers say the administration has not yet provided the level of disclosure Americans deserve.
Merkley, for instance, was referring to the fact that the law under which the phone records are obtained requires reasonable grounds to believe the records sought are “relevant to an authorized investigation . . . to protect against international terrorism.”
How could there be one authorized investigation that enables the collection of “all phone records, all the time, all locations?” Merkley asked. How, he continued, “has the standard of the law been met?”
Some experts believe the government has created a secret umbrella investigation that has facilitated the crafting of court orders to cover all phone records. But the existence of any such investigation and related legal opinions and court orders remains classified.
Alexander declined to discuss specifics, deferring to the Justice Department on the classification question. But he said he thought the government should see “if we can get it declassified and out to the American people so they see exactly how we do it.”
The surveillance programs are authorized by the USA Patriot Act, a law passed after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Just over two years ago, when the measure came up for reauthorization, some senators said
the administration’s secret interpretation of the law was allowing it to sweep up large amounts of data about the communications of Americans.
“When the American people find out . . . they are going to be stunned and they are going to be angry,” Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) said on the Senate floor in May 2011.
“Millions of innocent citizens are having their records looked at,” Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) said the same month. On Thursday, Paul said he plans to bring legal action against the government over its surveillance efforts.