U. S. Senators Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Mark Udall (D-Colo.), both members of the Senate Intelligence Committee, released the following statement regarding the recent disclosure by intelligence officials that the NSA operated a bulk email records collection program under the authority of the Patriot Act until 2011. This program is distinct from the internet-related collection carried out under section 702 of the FISA Amendments Act (which involves the PRISM computer system).
"We are quite familiar with the bulk email records collection program that operated under the USA Patriot Act and has now been confirmed by senior intelligence officials. We were very concerned about this program's impact on Americans' civil liberties and privacy rights, and we spent a significant portion of 2011 pressing intelligence officials to provide evidence of its effectiveness. They were unable to do so, and the program was shut down that year.
"As we have noted, the Patriot Act's surveillance authorities are not limited to phone records. In fact, section 215 of the Patriot Act can be used to collect any type of records whatsoever. The fact that Patriot Act authorities were used for the bulk collection of email records as well as phone records underscores our concern that this authority could be used to collect other types of records in bulk as well, including information on credit card purchases, medical records, library records, firearm sales records, financial information and a range of other sensitive subjects. These other types of collection could clearly have a significant impact on Americans' constitutional rights.
"Intelligence officials have noted that the bulk email records program was discussed with both Congress and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. In our judgment it is also important to note that intelligence agencies made statements to both Congress and the Court that significantly exaggerated this program's effectiveness. This experience demonstrates to us that intelligence agencies' assessments of the usefulness of particular collection programs -- even significant ones -- are not always accurate. This experience has also led us to be skeptical of claims about the value of the bulk phone records collection program in particular.
"We believe that the broader lesson here is that even though intelligence officials may be well-intentioned, assertions from intelligence agencies about the value and effectiveness of particular programs should not simply be accepted at face value by policymakers or oversight bodies any more than statements about the usefulness of other government programs should be taken at face value when they are made by other government officials. It is up to Congress, the courts and the public to ask the tough questions and press even experienced intelligence officials to back their assertions up with actual evidence, rather than simply deferring to these officials' conclusions without challenging them.
"We look forward to continuing the debate about the effectiveness of the ongoing Patriot Act phone records collection program in the days and weeks ahead."
Last week, Senators Wyden and Udall were part of a group of twenty-six senators that wrote to the Director of National Intelligence raising questions about the bulk collection of phone records under the Patriot Act.