During the annual "worldwide threat" hearing this week in the Senate Intelligence Committee, the nation's intelligence chiefs came under from some old adversaries: senators who have been valiantly trying to force them to come clean on their illegal activities since the "war on terror" began. Not surprisingly, the chiefs didn't come equipped to answer questions.
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.The stonewall remained for the purposes of this hearing, in which Clapper not only didn't answer Wyden's tough questions, but he all but accused journalists of participating in treason, demanding that Snowden and all of his "accomplices" in the news outlets return leaked documents.
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.
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. [...]
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 was given the final word, and question, asking each intelligence official to provide him and the committee evidence, actual cases, that need information so urgently that it couldn't go through the established warrant process with telecoms and had to have access to its own database. Both the president's NSA reform advisory group and the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board noted that they had found no such instances in their reviews. The chiefs promised those answers, too, would be forthcoming. This assures much more to come as Congress grapples with surveillance reform.