WASHINGTON – In a heated confrontation over domestic spying, members of Congress said Wednesday that they never intended to allow the National Security Agency to sweep up millions of Americans' phone records. And they threatened to curtail the government's surveillance authority.
The clash on Capitol Hill was the most pointed public debate over recently revealed government surveillance programs. It undercut President Barack Obama's assurances that Congress had fully understood and approved the dramatic expansion of government power over the past six years.
The most intense moments came when Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., told Deputy Attorney General James Cole that Congress only meant to authorize seizures of information directly relevant to national security investigations. It never expected the government to snatch everybody's records and store them in a huge database to search later.
As Cole explained why that was necessary, Sensenbrenner cut him off and reminded him that his surveillance authority expires in 2015.
"And unless you realize you've got a problem," Sensenbrenner said, "that is not going to be renewed."
Sensenbrenner's criticism is significant because he was among the primary authors of the Patriot Act and has been a staunch advocate of expanded surveillance powers. He was followed by Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y., who picked up where his colleague left off.
Later, Rep. Ted Poe, R-Texas, harkened back to the Soviet Union when talking about the government's eavesdropping authority.
"The actions of the citizens were constantly under surveillance by the government," he said. "And anything that was done, the government would say, 'We're doing this for national security reasons.' "
The administration says it built a library of everyone's phone records so, when it finds a suspected terrorist, it can search its archives for all his calling habits.
After details of the phone surveillance were leaked by former government contractor Edward Snowden recently, Obama cited congressional oversight in his assurances to the American public.
"When it comes to telephone calls, every member of Congress has been briefed on this program," he said.
But Wednesday's hearings cast doubt that Congress fully understood the authorities it had granted several times since the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Rep Randy Forbes, R-Va., said such a vast database of phone records was ripe for government abuse. When National Security Agency deputy director John C. Inglis said there was no evidence of abuse, Forbes interrupted:
"I said I wasn't going to yell at you and I'm going to try not to. That's exactly what the American people are worried about," he said. "That's what's infuriating the American people. They're understanding that if you collect that amount of data, people can get access to it in ways that can harm them."
The committee also will hear from administration critics, among them Jameel Jaffer of the American Civil Liberties Union. Jaffer, the group's deputy legal director, said in testimony prepared for Wednesday's hearing that excessive secrecy on surveillance issues "has made congressional oversight difficult and public oversight impossible."
Kate Martin, director of the Center for National Security Studies, said in testimony prepared for the hearing that the "massive" collection of information on Americans is unprecedented and that the surveillance of Americans "poses a significant and perhaps unprecedented challenge to our system of constitutional checks and balances."