Civil liberties groups ask Congress to probe NSA spying on U.S. lawmakers

Fourteen civil liberties groups have asked one of Congress‘s most powerful committees to investigate a National Security Agency operation that ended up spying on U.S. lawmakers.

The letter from the bipartisan coalition, which includes the left-leaning American Civil Liberties Union and the libertarian FreedomWorks, urges the House Oversight Committee to hold public hearings on NSA surveillance of Israeli officials, a program that accidentally collected conversations between U.S. lawmakers and members of the Israeli 

“Hearings should address whether the Executive Branch has intercepted communications regarding the Congress, federal courts, and other independent government agencies; the sufficiency of existing protections to ensure that the communications of Congress, the courts, and other independent government agencies are not intercepted; and the need for additional legislation to ensure appropriate separation of powers in this context,” the groups suggested.

The Wall Street Journal revealed on Dec. 29 that President Obama had allowed the NSA to continuing spying on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu despite ordering it to stop surveilling most other heads of state, and that, in the course of assessing Israel’s response to the Iran nuclear deal, the agency swept in calls between members of Congress and Netanyahu’s advisers regarding a congressional vote on the deal.

The civil liberties groups also asked the Oversight Committee to tell the public how the NSA intercepts and distributes “communications from or to the Congress, the courts, and other independent government agencies;” to investigate “past collection practices,” including the surveillance of whistleblowers; and to “develop legislation to limit collection of communications involving legislative and judicial branch activities, as well as independent Executive Branch agencies.”

“NSA guidance on data collection efforts,” they warned, “is subject to agency interpretation and these dissemination practices are subject to change.”

A senior administration official declined to directly address the letter, saying, “The Intelligence Community is required to keep Congressional oversight committees fully informed of intelligence activities.”

The NSA did not respond to a request for comment on the letter. A spokesman for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, which oversees the NSA and related agencies, declined to comment.

While the letter was addressed to the House Oversight Committee, the groups also sent it to members of the House Intelligence and Judiciary Committees. The Intelligence panel has already announced an investigation into the accidental targeting of U.S. lawmakers.

The offices of the chairmen and ranking members of the House Oversight and Judiciary Committees did not respond to requests for comment.

Update 3:17pm CT, Jan. 14: Added comment from senior administrative official.

H/T Politico | Photo via johrling/Flickr (CC BY 2.0) | Remix by Max Fleishman 

Eric Geller

Eric Geller

Eric Geller is a politics reporter who focuses on cybersecurity, surveillance, encryption, and privacy. A former staff writer at the Daily Dot, Geller joined Politico in June 2016, where he's focused on policymaking at the White House, the Justice Department, the State Department, and the Commerce Department.