Obama Administration Briefed Senators On NSA Snooping

Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin says he and some of his colleagues knew about elements of the Verizon story before it became public. UPDATE: Patriot Act author calls the FISA order “excessive.”

WASHINGTON, DC - DECEMBER 30: Senator Dick Durbin Drew Angerer / Getty Images

WASHINGTON — The Obama administration informed some lawmakers of the NSA’s sweeping phone monitoring program as part of classified briefings, Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin said Thursday.

“We have hearings on this in the Senate Judiciary Committee and many of these things I’ve been briefed on in a classified setting,” Durbin, a member of the committee, said.

Asked specifically if he’d been briefed on the NSA’s FISA warrant to monitor collect phone records for millions of Verizon customers, Durbin said, “I’ve been briefed on information, some of which was disclosed today.”

Durbin, who said he is “of course” concerned, explained that he hopes the revelations will prompt a new public discussion of personal privacy rights versus national security concerns.

“This is a fundamental question of personal privacy and freedom versus our concerns for security. We’ve been unable to discuss this because of the classified nature of this. But we’ve voted on this, in the committee and the floor, and I hope we’ll get a chance to vote on it again, about the reach of the government into our private lives,” the Illinois Democrat said.

UPDATE: Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee defended the policy, telling reporters on Thursday that “as far as she knew” it was simply a renewal of a policy that had been in place for the last seven years.

“It is lawful. It has been briefed to Congress,” she said.

Ranking member Saxby Chambliss said that the files were “meta data only” and made the case that only when a number is flagged as a potential threat from a terrorist would further action be taken.

“The intelligence committee takes this oversight very seriously…we review every program with in the intelligence community on a regular basis,” he said. “Including this program, that’s why we took the liberty of explaining to our colleagues the substance of the program.”

UPDATE: House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers, a Republican from Michigan, told reporters on Thursday that the NSA program helped thwart a “significant case” of terrorism in the US “within the last few years.” He did not provide more details on the situation.

UPDATE: Representative F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., longtime Republican lawmaker from Wisconsin and author of the USA Patriot Act of 2001, called the FISA order to collect phone records from Verizon customers “excessive.”

As the author of the Patriot Act, I am extremely troubled by the FBI’s interpretation of this legislation. While I believe the Patriot Act appropriately balanced national security concerns and civil rights, I have always worried about potential abuses. The Bureau’s broad application for phone records was made under the so-called business records provision of the Act. I do not believe the broadly drafted FISA order is consistent with the requirements of the Patriot Act. Seizing phone records of millions of innocent people is excessive and un-American.

In a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder, Sensenbrenner said he is “extremely disturbed by what appears to be an overbroad interpretation” of the Patriot Act.

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