Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Congress takes new interest in government's domestic surveillance program

News out of Washington, D.C., that members of the U.S. Congress are taking renewed interest in the government's domestic surveillance program is better than nothing, but still is years late. According to the New York Times, Rep. Rush Holt (D-New Jersey), chairman of the House Select Intelligence Oversight Panel, has been investigating domestic wiretapping and e-mail interceptions by the National Security Agency and no longer believes government assertions that any illegal monitoring was inadvertant. “Some actions are so flagrant that they can’t be accidental,” Holt told the Times. Three Congressional committees have opened investigations into the monitoring program since April, when revelations surfaced that surveillance of domestic communications went beyond legal limits last year and early in 2009, the Times said. Little has been disclosed publicly about the probes, which are being conducted in secret. But recent testimony reportedly has revealed that the monitoring has been much wider than previously known. Holt said one of the problems in overseeing the conduct of the NSA was that few lawmakers understood the laws authorizing the program, which were passed by Congress. “The people making the policy don’t understand the technicalities,” Holt said. The Times said a former intelligence official who demanded anonymity said he was trained in 2005 to routinely monitor e-mails sent by U.S. residents without first obtaining warrants from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, the secret panel charged with overseeing the surveillance operation. The e-mails were collected in a secret database with the code name of Pinwale, the official said. A renewal of the program approved by Congress last year gave the NSA more leeway in collecting information but only if innocent e-mail communications from U.S. residents were filtered out of the millions of messages monitored by agency computers. The NSA declined to comment, the Times said. But a spokeswoman for National Intelligence Director Dennis Blair told the newspaper that "inadvertent errors" could not be avoided because of the complex nature of the surveillance operation. “When such errors are identified, they are reported to the appropriate officials and corrective measures are taken,” said the spokeswoman, Wendy Morigi. The domestic surveillance program was started under the previous administration of George W. Bush. Bush's successor, Barack Obama, said in April that his administration had taken steps to bring the NSA program back into compliance with the law.

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