Puget Sound lawmakers are not ready to say whether they believe the National Security Agency’s newly disclosed vast sweeps of Internet communications and phone records violate constitutional privacy protections, though some are pushing the Obama administration to reveal more information.
Rep. Adam Smith, D-Bellevue, has had the most exposure to briefings on the NSA’s collection of data through the so-called Prism program. He’s a former member of the House Intelligence Committee, and he’s tight-lipped about the NSA’s work.
“It’s a top secret program. I’m not allowed to talk about it,” he said.
Smith called the programs “effective in certain instances,” but he did not elaborate on specific cases of NSA surveillance leading to foiled foreign plots against U.S. interests.
He attended closed briefings on the programs this week, and said he wanted to make sure the NSA is not targeting communications of U.S. citizens without a warrant. He said he’s not sure if that has happened.
Smith said he felt consistently informed about the programs through his House Intelligence post, though he said the agency had been slow to reveal past mistakes.
Other Washington lawmakers said they learned about the phone and Internet communications programs with the rest of the world when they were revealed last week by The Washington Post and London’s The Guardian newspaper.
Sen. Patty Murray, one of the Democratic Party’s highest-ranking members, was among the lawmakers who did not know about Prism until the news broke. She has been critical of aspects of the Patriot Act in the past, as well as of the secret court that monitors NSA programs.
“Time and again, I’ve voted against extending the type of blanket surveillance authority certain government agencies have been given because of the potential for abuse,” she said.
“Like many Americans, I believe there are still many unanswered questions about how everyday Americans are being protected from undue intrusions under these programs.”
The state’s newest congressmen, Reps. Denny Heck of Olympia and Derek Kilmer of Gig Harbor, attended classified briefings about the NSA this week. Heck said through a spokesman that he learned about Prism and the collection of records after news reports.
Both said the NSA’s communications sweeps needed strong oversight from Congress, but neither said they thought the agency had gone too far.
Democratic Sen. Maria Cantwell and Rep. Rick Larsen of Everett each demanded more information from the Obama administration.
Through a spokesman, Larsen said he believes the NSA had not sufficiently informed lawmakers about the surveillance programs.
In a written statement, Larsen singled out the court set up under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act for not being more critical of NSA requests. The FISA court oversees NSA requests.
“The FISA court’s job is to watch the watchers,” Larsen said “But if recent reports are true, they are in fact rubber-stamping the watchers. These programs need to be subject to aggressive scrutiny and oversight, and if they’re not, Congress needs to fix them.”
Cantwell and other senators last year pressed NSA Director James Clapper to identify how many U.S. citizens might have had their email or phone records reviewed by the agency through blanket surveillance programs designed to target foreign communications. Clapper could not identify a number.
This week, she joined Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and 11 other senators in asking an executive branch civil liberties office to review Prism. The Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board was created in 2004 to monitor government surveillance powers.
“What remains unclear is how many Americans are inadvertently included in these collection efforts and how that inadvertently collected information is protected,” the senators’ letter reads.
Adam Ashton: 253-597-8646