Polite sparks flew during a U.S. Senate committee hearing Wednesday, as two of the nation's top spies were questioned about the National Security Agency's surveillance of U.S. residents.
"The leadership of your agencies built an intelligence-collection system that repeatedly deceived the American people," Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), told NSA Director Gen. Keith Alexander and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper during a hearing called by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.
"This loss of trust undermines America's ability to collect intelligence on real threats," Wyden added. "Your joint testimony blames the media [for public outrage at the NSA], but in fact, this could have been avoided if your agencies had been straight with the American people."
Wyden and fellow senators Mark Udall (D-Colo.), Rand Paul (R-Tenn.), and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), have submitted a bill that would greatly restrict the ability of the government to use Section 215 of the USA-PATRIOT Act to collect metadata — phone numbers, dates, times and call durations — about every telephone call placed in the United States.
"Are there upper limits on the number of records you can collect?" Udall asked Alexander. "Is it your plan to collect records on all Americans? Are there other kinds of metadata you would like to collect?"
"There is no upper limit, no," replied Alexander. "I believe it's in the nation's best interests to place all the phone records in a lockbox, and oversight [of the NSA] will be key to that."
Regarding the collection of other kinds of metadata, Alexander referred to a previously disclosed Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court ruling that Section 215 could not be used to indiscriminately collect location records from cellular-network towers. (Such records can be used to physically track cellphones.)
Despite that court ruling, Wyden repeatedly asked Alexander the same question he and Udall have twice asked Clapper in public letters — whether the NSA "has ever collected, or has ever made any plans to collect, Americans' cell-site information in bulk."
"Under Section 215 of the Patriot Act..." Alexander began to reply.
"That's not the question I'm asking," Wyden interrupted. "Has the NSA ever collected, or ever made any plans to collect, Americans' cell-site information in bulk?"
As members of the intelligence committee briefed on national-security matters, Udall and Wyden probably know the answer, but cannot reveal it publicly.
"It's fair to assume that Wyden knows answers to the questions he's asking at public hearings," tweeted ACLU technology policy analyst Christopher Soghoian during the hearing. "He's asking them for our benefit."
The bill sponsored by Blumenthal, Rand, Udall and Wyden has no chance of getting anywhere, as evidenced by the gratitude and deference most members of the Senate Intelligence Committee showed Alexander and Clapper.
"We have a system which now works," said Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.). "You don't build a Roman Forum and then build another one next door because you made a mistake."