Under intense pressure from privacy advocates in Congress, the Director of National Intelligence, the head of the CIA and the FBI director on Wednesday all promised to respond within weeks to unanswered questions about the extent of the intelligence community’s surveillance of Americans.
Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., in a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing that within the next 30 days he’ll publicly answer whether the National Security Agency has ever made use of the authority it was secretly granted to search for the emails or phone calls of Americans without a warrant. According to documents leaked by former government contractor Edward Snowden last year, the agency was granted that authority under Section 702 of the FISA Amendments Act, which allows for warrantless searches of foreigners’ communications.
When Wyden asked Clapper whether any searches explicitly targeting Americans have indeed taken place, Clapper said he’d “prefer to not discuss this” because of the “very complex legal issues.” However, he agreed to give a declassified answer within a month.
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Meanwhile, CIA director John Brennan promised to tell Wyden within a week whether the federal Computer Fraud and Abuse Act applies to the CIA.
Additionally, FBI director James Comey promised to tell Wyden within a week whether the FBI has different standards for tracking individuals via cell phone towers versus tracking them via smartphone applications. Comey said he doesn’t believe that the FBI has to have probable cause to in order to acquire an Americans’ cell site location -- only a reasonable basis to believe it’s relevant to an investigation. He could not say, however, whether that “reasonable basis” standard also applied to tracking smartphone apps.
“I probably ought to ask someone who is a little smarter on what the standard is that governs those,” he said.
Wyden and one other lawmaker, Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., slammed the intelligence officials for not cooperating with congressional oversight in the past. Wyden said he tried to get written answers from Clapper regarding the warrantless NSA searches a year go, but “we were stonewalled on that.”
Wyden alluded to the multiple times Clapper and other intelligence officials gave misleading remarks about the extent of surveillance programs. “These statements did not protect sources and methods that were useful in fighting terror,” he said. “Instead, they hid bad policy choices and violations of the liberties of the American people.”While Wyden took Clapper to task, liberal Code Pink activists sat in the audience, wearing pink shirts and holding signs that read slogans like, “James Clapper, you’re fired.” A handful of lawmakers have called for Clapper to be fired given that he previously lied to Congress about NSA programs.
Heinrich, meanwhile, slammed Brennan for his response to the Intelligence Committee’s study on the CIA’s detention and interrogation program. “Recent efforts undertaken by the CIA, including but not limited to inaccurate public statements about the committee study, are meant to intimidate, deflect and thwart legitimate oversight,” he said.
While the intelligence officials were ready Wednesday to cooperate with lawmakers, they also stressed the damage they believe has been done to the nation’s intelligence gathering due to the Snowden leaks. Clapper said the leaks have done “profound damage,” and “as a consequence, the nation is less safe and its people less secure.”
“Terrorists and other adversaries of this country are going to school on U.S. intelligence sources' methods and trade craft and the insights that they are gaining are making our job much, much harder,” he said. “And this includes putting the lives of members or assets of the intelligence community at risk, as well as our armed forces, diplomats, and our citizens.”
Clapper added that he calls on Snowden and his “accomplices” to return of the remaining stolen documents that have not yet been publicly released to prevent any more damage to U.S. security.
Later, when asked about the United States’ preparedness with respect to terrorist attacks, Clapper said it was difficult to say whether the country is safer now than it was in 2001. Earlier, the U.S. has focused on the al Qaeda core, but the threat is now much more dispersed, he said.
The Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) of Pakistan remain the al Qaeda movement’s ideological center, he said, but there are at least five franchises in 12 countries. What’s going on in Syria, he said, “may be some respects a new FATA for us.” The al-Nusra Front in Syria, he said, “does have aspirations for attacks on the homeland.” Intelligence officials told Congress earlier this year that extremist groups in Syria were trying to recruit Americans and other westerners who had traveled to Syria to carry out attacks on their return home.
Clapper also said the terrorists have gotten more sophisticated.
“It's clear as well that our collection capabilities are not as robust, perhaps, as they were because the terrorists -- and this is not specifically because of the Snowden revelations -- but generally have gotten smarter about how we go about our business, and how we use trade-craft to detect them and to thwart them,” he said.Lawmakers also asked National Counterterrorism Center Director Matthew Olsen about the threat of terrorism during the Sochi Olympics. Olsen said there has been an “uptick” in the threat reporting, but this was to be expected given the number of extremist groups in in this area. After traveling to Sochi in December and meeting with Russian officials, Olsen told lawmakers Wednesday that the Russians are devoting substantial resources to the threat.
“The biggest issue from my perspective is not the games themselves, the venues themselves,” he said. “There's extensive security at those locations, the sites of the events. The greater threat is to softer targets in the greater Sochi area, and in the outskirts. Beyond Sochi. Where there is a substantial potential for a terrorist attack.”