Washington — One of its major proponents in Congress, former Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman says he continues to support a controversial National Security Agency surveillance program that collects phone and Internet data.
“If you weigh the risks of compromising phone records against the enormous benefits, I think you’ll find it justified,” Lieberman said. “I remain very supportive of the program.”
As chairman of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, Lieberman was a staunch defender of the Patriot Act, a bill that was approved by large majorities in Congress weeks after the 9/11 attacks. That legislation gave the NSA sweeping collection powers.
When civil libertarians and others raised questions about those powers in the aftermath of the attacks, the Democrat-turned-independent senator defended them. Appearing on ABC’s “This Week” in 2006, Lieberman called criticisms of NSA operations the result of “petty partisanship.”
“We’re at a partisan gridlock over the question of whether the American government can listen into conversations or follow emails of non-American citizens,” Lieberman said at the time. “That’s wrong.”
Last week, Lieberman said he didn’t mean to imply that the NSA did not spy on Americans, but that “most of the focus was to try to track down terrorist action from abroad.”
Patrick Toomey, a national security fellow at the American Civil Liberties Union, said the NSA surveillance programs were expanded to collect data from Americans since 2006 — and perhaps earlier.
“While the government surveillance is ostensibly targeted at foreigners, the ACLU believes it sweeps up vast quantities of Americans’ communications,” he said.
The ACLU has sued the government to challenge what it calls “blanket acquisition” of data. But the Supreme Court in February dismissed the case, saying the groups represented by the ACLU could not challenge the wiretapping program because they could not prove their communications were monitored.
The ACLU’s efforts received a boost from NSA contractor Edward Snowden, who revealed earlier this month that the NSA has collected and archived records on virtually every domestic telephone call in at least the past six years. Snowden also leaked information about a program called PRISM, under which the NSA was collecting information from Internet companies like Google.
Snowden’s revelations made the public jittery and Congress furious that it had been misled about the scope of the NSA programs. Lawmakers grilled NSA and Justice Department officials last week and plan to continue their investigations.
Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., author of the Patriot Act in the House, said he’s appalled at how the NSA used the authority the law gave the agency.
“How can every call that every American makes or receives be relevant to a specific investigation?” he asked in an op-ed article for The Guardian, a British newspaper that first published Snowden’s revelations. “This is well beyond what the Patriot Act allows.”
But to Lieberman, the outrage is overblown. He said the NSA is simply collecting “metadata,” phone numbers and “connections between phone numbers.”
“It’s just numbers,” Lieberman said. “I think people will feel better about these programs if they know more about them.”
Connecticut’s former senator said he hopes President Obama will defend the NSA programs again, as he did last week, when the president said they strike the “right balance” between national security and civil liberties.
Mitchell Pearlman, a journalism professor at the University of Connecticut and former head of the Connecticut Freedom of Information Commission, said Lieberman is a “strong privacy advocate,” who carefully weighed the dangers posed by the surveillance against its value as a terrorism-fighting tool before endorsing the plan.
But Pearlman said Congress and the Bush administration made big mistakes in setting up the surveillance program.
“(The NSA) is using power, and there’s no accountability,” he said.
NSA Director Keith Alexander said the surveillance programs have helped thwart “dozens” of terrorists attacks. He hopes to give Congress information about those attacks this week.
Lieberman said he “remembers at least a couple” of terror plots foiled through the use of information collected by the NSA’s surveillance program. He said he hopes the agency will declassify its information about those plots.
The NSA is required to ask the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC), made up of 11 federal judges, for permission to collect telephone and Internet information.
The court considers thousands of requests each year, according to annual reports to Congress. But either Congress nor anyone outside the court know the details of these requests, and few are refused.
In 2008, Lieberman supported a bill that allowed the NSA to ask FISC for mass surveillance orders, instead of having to show a specific reason for a wiretap. The legislation, which Congress approved, also gave telecom companies immunity from lawsuits that could arise because they provide the NSA or other government agencies call logs and other information about their customers.
Former Rep. Chris Shays, R-4th District, was the only member of Connecticut’s congressional delegation to side with Lieberman on this issue.
When the bill came up for reauthorization in December, Lieberman was the only member of the Connecticut congressional delegation to vote for it.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said he voted against the bill because he thinks there needs to be more accountability in the process.
“I also think blanket immunity (for telecommunication companies) is dangerous because it could lead to lawlessness,” the former state attorney general said last week.
Blumenthal said he supports legislation that would require the U.S. attorney general to declassify significant FISA court rulings so the public could know how broadly the government claims legal authority to spy on Americans under the Patriot Act.
In addition, Sens. Mark Udall, D-Colo., and Ron Wyden, D-Ore., plan to sponsor a bill this week that would require the NSA or other federal agencies to demonstrate a link to terrorists or international spies to be able to collect phone call data.