Attorney General Eric Holder today faced questioning from Illinois Senator Mark Kirk on whether or not the phone calls of members of Congress were included in the NSA’s seizing of millions of Verizon cell phone records.
Unfortunately, Holder wasn’t prepared to answer the question, which I think we can take as a definitely maybe:
“I want to take you to the Verizon scandal, and which I understand takes us to possibly monitoring up to 120 million calls. You know when government bureaucrats are sloppy, they’re usually very sloppy,” said Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.). “I want to just ask, could you assure to us that no phones inside the Capitol were monitored of members of Congress that would give a future executive branch, if they started pulling this kind of thing up, that would give them unique leverage over the legislature?”
“With all due respect, Senator I don’t think this is an appropriate setting for me to discuss that issue. I’d be more than glad to come back in a — in an appropriate setting to discuss the issues that — that you have raised,” Holder responded.
“I would interrupt you and say the correct answer would be to say no, we stayed within our lane and I’m assuring you we did not spy on members of Congress,” Kirk interjected.
Meanwhile, Wired notes something scary disclosed in the scoop about the NSA’s targeting of cell phone records: Congressional oversight of this sort of spying based on the little bit of information that is divulged is worthless, because the government can lie with numbers:
Every year, the Justice Department gives Congress a tally of the classified wiretap orders sought and issued in terrorist and spy cases – it was 1,789 last year. At the same time, it reports the number of demands for “business records” in such cases, issued under Section 215 of the USA Patriot Act. And while the number of such orders has generally grown over the years, it has always managed to stay relatively low. In 2011, it was 205. There were 96 orders in 2010, and only 21 in 2009.
Thanks to the Guardian’s scoop, we now know definitively just how misleading these numbers are. You see, while the feds are required to disclose the number of orders they apply for and receive (almost always the same number, by the way), they aren’t required to say how many people are targeted in each order. So a single order issued to Verizon Business Solutions in April covered metadata for every phone call made by every customer. That’s from one order out of what will probably be about 200 reported in next year’s numbers.
At this point, we have no idea how much information the government is accumulating about our private communications. And that’s a scary, scary thing especially in light of the IRS scandal showing how easy it is for the government to use these powers for political purposes.